No. 24 Tar Heels pass the Pirates|UNC defense holds ECU in check

Published 7:12 pm Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sports Writer

CHAPEL HILL — East Carolina coach Skip Holtz preached all week about the strength of the North Carolina defense, and on Saturday his prophecy turned into reality as the No. 24 Tar Heels smothered the Pirates 31-17 in front of 58,000 people at Kenan Stadium.
North Carolina (3-0) stifled the struggling Pirates’ offense as it held them to 192 passing yards and an abysmal 55 rushing yards.
“I said this would be one of the better defenses, and I also said that we could play a whole lot better and not have the numbers to show for it because they are a top quality defense,” Holtz reasoned.
However, it’s hard to see the improvement in an offense that gained less then 300 yards of total offense. The Pirates (1-2) did snap their second-half scoreless streak at five quarters, but it was only because they failed to produce a touchdown inside the red zone and settled for a Ben Hartman 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
East Carolina’s longest pass of the day came on a trick play that stared with a pitch to running back Brandon Jackson, who ran left and then pitched the ball to an on-coming Dwayne Harris, who rolled right and hurled a pass to fellow wide receiver Joe Womack for 35 yards in the second quarter.
Quarterback Patrick Pinkney had another sub-par performance, which at this rate is just becoming par. The ECU QB was 19 for 30 for 157 yards and one TD pass, while being sacked twice.
Pinkney failed to connect on a pass longer than 21 yards, and most of his completions came on screens, dump passes and other extensions of the running game via pass.
To his credit, Pinkney has kept his head up after the game and was confident that he can get the offense headed in the right direction.
“We just need to keep playing hard on the practice field,” Pinkney said. “Trust me, when we start clicking we’ll be alright.”
On the flip side, the Tar Heels’ offense went a long way to cool off concerns about an inexperienced receiving corps and an unproven offensive line.
Playing with a patchwork unit up front that had to replace starting guard Jon Cooper and center Lowell Dyer due to injuries, the UNC protection held up and kept quarterback T.J. Yates’ jersey clean all game long.
With time to throw, Yates had a very effective afternoon as he was 19 for 24 for 224 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Throwing the ball was supposed to be a struggle for North Carolina after it lost wideouts Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster to the NFL draft in the off-season. However, the new crew looked promising as 6-3, 175-pound freshman Erik Highsmith hauled in six catches for 113 yards and the first TD of his college career, while junior Greg Little nabbed five passes for 59 yards.
Freshman wide receiver Jheranie Boyd also had a big day as the first catch of his NCAA career was a 59-yard strike from Yates, which he bobbled, but managed to reel in for a touchdown.
Highsmith sported Nicks’ number 88 jersey, and after the game Tar Heels coach Butch Davis said that the he expects that jersey number to be in high demand for years to come.
“I don’t know who is going to wear those numbers for the next 25 years, but whoever comes in should ask for number 88,” Davis said. “I would try and make sure that I’m that heir apparent to that. Everybody has intangibles that gives them a chance, but (Highsmith) just puts himself in a position to make sure he gives himself a chance to catch the ball.”
Once again redshirt sophomore safety Derek Blacknall, who started for the injured Levin Neal, struggled in the secondary and got beat twice for touchdowns in the first half. His play forced Holtz to play freshman Jack Shultz and corner Dekota Marshall at safety.
“I always said you are only as strong as you weakest link,” Holtz said. “You give up a couple of deep plays, and you could have all the talent in the world between the quarterback and the receiver who is 60 yards down field, but if he throws it over everybody’s head it’s irrelevant.”
The Pirates’ defense helped out the offense early when C.J. Wilson recovered a fumble by UNC backup quarterback/running back A.J. Blue, who botched his first snap of the game at the Heels’ 33-yard.
Six plays later Pinkney connected with Jamar Bryant on a 7-yard slant pattern that produced a 7-0 lead with 7:07 left in the first quarter.
North Carolina answered on the ensuing possession when Yates hit Highsmith for a 16-yard TD pass to tie the game at 7-7.
Midway through the second quarter the Pirates special teams forced the Heels into a hurried punt, which gave them the ball in prime position. Starting its drive at the UNC 28, East Carolina looked poised to put points on the board, but on the second play of the drive defensive end E.J. Wilson forced running back Jonathan Williams to fumble, which was recovered by corner Charles Brown.
The Pirates’ special teams had a good game, and was highlighted by the play of punter Matt Dodge, who at this point has been the team’s MVP. Dodge averaged 48.8 yards on six punts, and boomed a 58-yarder in the first half.
The Heels capitalized on the ECU error with Boyd’s 59-yard bobbled TD reception and a 14-7 lead.
The Pirates’ next drive was all about Harris, who moved the team up field with his 35-yard pass, then later rushed in for a TD from the 6-yard line out of the wildcat formation to tie the game at 14 all.
With six minutes left in the second, North Carolina had enough time to strike before the break and strung together a nice drive in which it effectively ran and passed down the field with relative ease, and ended with a Ryan Houston 1-yard TD plunge. Houston’s score gave UNC a 21-14 lead after two quarters.
In the third, North Carolina went up 24-14 on a Casey Barth 28-yard field goal.
With 6:21 left in the game, ECU broke its scoreless second-half streak with a 22-yard field goal to cut the Heels’ lead to 24-17.
The Pirates wouldn’t get any closer as UNC’s Houston scored on 5-yard scamper with two minutes left in the game to pad the score.
Lost in the mix of a highlight-producing passing game was a sturdy Tar Heels’ rushing attack powered by elusive tailback Shaun Draughn. The junior carried the ball 19 times for 84 yards, and also threw an option pass for 34 yards.
The Pirates’ ground game never really got off the ground, and was led by Brandon Jackson who rushed for 38 yards on 12 attempts.
“We just kind of got into a situation where we had to throw the ball a little bit more than what we expected, and it kind of took us out of our game plan,” Jackson said. “They were similar to our defense where they got big guys up front that make plays, and their linebackers and DB’s played well … They did a good job of disguising what they were doing. I give them a lot of credit.”
One Tar Heel that received a lot of credit from the Pirates was sophomore defensive end Robert Quinn, who had two sacks and four tackles.
“I think Quinn is better than he was on film. I thought he was one of the better players on defense,” Holtz said. “I think he is a pro right now, I know he is only a sophomore, but he can run. There were a couple of times we tried to put a blocking scheme in and put a block down on him and he just shot the gap.”
East Carolina 7 7 0 3 — 17
North Carolina 7 14 3 7 — 31
First Quarter
ECU—Bryant 7 pass from Pinkney (Hartman kick), 7:07.
NC—Highsmith 16 pass from Yates (Barth kick), 4:44.
Second Quarter
NC—Boyd 59 pass from Yates (Barth kick), 8:09.
ECU—Harris 6 run (Hartman kick), 6:22.
NC—Houston 1 run (Barth kick), 2:57.
Third Quarter
NC—FG Barth 28, 9:21.
Fourth Quarter
ECU—FG Hartman 22, 6:21.
NC—Houston 5 run (Barth kick), 1:58.
First downs 13 22
Rushes-yards 30-55 37-148
Passing 192 285
Comp-Att-Int 20-31-0 21-26-0
Return Yards 4 44
Punts-Avg. 6-48.8 4-31.3
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 7-42 6-56
Time of Possession 30:46 29:14
RUSHING—East Carolina, Jackson 12-35, Harris 4-15, J.Williams 4-7, G.Ruffin 4-6, Pinkney 5-(minus 1), Freeney 1-(minus 7). North Carolina, Draughn 19-84, Houston 12-41, Boyd 2-16, Yates 2-5, Blue 2-2.
PASSING—East Carolina, Pinkney 19-30-0-157, Harris 1-1-0-35. North Carolina, Yates 19-24-0-227, Blue 1-1-0-24, Draughn 1-1-0-34.
RECEIVING—East Carolina, Taylor 5-46, Womack 4-66, Harris 4-45, Bryant 4-27, J.Williams 2-3, Jackson 1-5. North Carolina, Highsmith 6-113, Little 5-59, Draughn 4-16, Elzy 3-11, Boyd 1-59, Adams 1-23, J.White 1-4.