Tar Heels hold off Knights|UNC wins first game of the year

Published 6:41 pm Sunday, September 26, 2010

By By TOM CANAVAN, AP Sports Writer
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — North Carolina finally found a way to win playing short-handed.
T.J. Yates threw a go-ahead third-quarter touchdown and North Carolina’s defense made two late stands to lead the undermanned Tar Heels to a 17-13 victory over Rutgers on Saturday.
‘‘This feels good,’’ Yates said after North Carolina (1-2) avoided its first 0-3 start since 2003. ‘‘Just to get a W, no matter how we got it, or how ugly it was, we were just happy to get a win after a couple of close one-touchdown games. For us to flip it around, and for it to be us, feels good.’’
For some players the win was a major relief in a season marked by an NCAA investigation that left 13 players, including seven starters, ineligible for the season opener against LSU on Sept. 4. Twelve were still out last week against Georgia Tech.
Those games ended with the Tar Heels on the short end of 30-24 scores.
This time, they found a way to win, getting big plays on both sides of the ball, especially from the defense in the final four minutes.
Matt Merletti intercepted a pass from a banged-up Tom Savage (ribs) at the Tar Heels 6 with less than 3 minutes left and North Carolina forced Rutgers to turn the ball over on downs after the Scarlet Knights took over at the Tar Heels 34 with 2:21 remaining.
Savage (16 of 29 for 150 yards and two interceptions) refused to use the ribs he hurt late in the first half as an excuse. He blamed his footwork.
‘‘It’s frustrating when you know you can do it,’’ Savage said. ‘‘It’s frustrating when you’ve made the throws before. It’s frustrating when you know the guys are open. I know my talent and I can make those throws. That’s it and I will.’’
Yates put North Carolina ahead with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Taylor with 5:34 left in the third quarter. It came on the Tar Heels’ first series of the half, the one that Rutgers started with Savage still in the locker room being examined by doctors. He came back on the field just as the drive ended.
Yates, who finished 22 of 30 for 204 yards and an interception, then led the Tar Heels on a 14-play, 80-yard march during which he converted on three third-down plays and also got a pass interference call on another third down to keep the drive alive.
Taylor capped the march by bulling over on his 5-yard catch, although the officials reviewed the score when the ball came out of his hands near the goal line. He had crossed the plane of the end zone.
‘‘We have had a lot of adversity this season,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘This team as a whole fights incredibly hard. It never gives up on a game or a play and these guys have been amazing the way they have kept it up.’’
Linebacker Bruce Carter set up the Tar Heels other two scores with an interception and a blocked punt. The pick set up a 1-yard run by Johnny White and the block led to a 25-yard field goal by Casey Barth.
Mohamed Sanu scored on a 10-yard run and San San Te kicked field goals of 32 and 39 yards for Rutgers (1-2) which was playing its first BCS opponent this season.
After the Taylor touchdown put North Carolina ahead 14-10, a 46-yard kickoff return and a personal foul set up Te’s 39 yard field goal on the next series.
However, Carter’s punt block led to Barth’s field goal with 9:34 to go.
Rutgers seemed ready to add to the Tar Heels late woes when they drove from their own 22 to the North Carolina 23 with just over three minutes to play.
After a 4-yard run by Jordan Thomas, Savage threw a pass behind Sanu and Merletti intercepted the ball.
On the Scarlet Knights final series, Tydreke Powell tipped a pass by Savage and had the last of North Carolina’s five sacks to all by end Rutgers hopes for a 3-0 start.
‘‘This was a great opportunity to show everybody what Carolina football is about,’’ said Quinton Coples, who nine tackles and three sacks. ‘‘I think we had a lot of close games that we probably should have won. We have a lot of pride and that’s what we take into every game.’’
Te kicked a 32-yard field goal and Sanu added a 10-yard touchdown run less than three minutes later to stake Rutgers to a 10-0 lead.
The Sanu score was set by a 21-yard fumble return by linebacker Antonio Lowery after Taylor fumbled after catching a short pass.
Rutgers had a chance to stretch the lead after taking over at the North Carolina 38 after a direct snap to the upback on a punt attempt was misplayed. The Scarlet Knights got a first down at the Tar Heels 17 and appeared ready to tack on points when Carter intercepted Savage and returned the ball to the Rutgers 28, setting up White’s TD run.