One thing that separates this Carolina defense from years past is turnover generation. The Heels have been second or third in the conference in interceptions each of the last three seasons, and always on the positive side of the turnover margin column. This year however, UNC didn't get their first interception until Matt Merletti grabbed two late in the Virginia game; Tre Boston would pick off the third against Georgia Tech. Similarly, they only fell on two fumbles in their first four games, so it's no surprise the Heels came to Greenville last night ahead of only Miami in turnover margin in the ACC.
That quickly changed. UNC would force turnovers on the first three East Carolina possessions, forcing two fumbles in Carolina territory and picking off ECU quarterback Dominique Davis on his own 14. By the time the Pirates managed a punt, they were down 14-0; when UNC responded with a 92-yard touchdown drive to make the lead three TDs, the game was almost over. By the end of the half, Carolina led 28-3 and had snatched a second interception out of the air, this one by defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. The Heels would almost get their hands on a couple more, most famously in ECU's own end zone in the fourth quarter, but their hands weren't as magical in the second half.
More importantly, Bryn Renner had an error-free evening of his own. The sophomore quarterback had obviously worked on throwing the ball away and making better decisions, as he had no interceptions and no sacks, while throwing four touchdown passes two three different receivers. Erik Highsmith's was particularly pretty, a nice 75-yarder where he just left the Pirate secondary in his dust. But it was Dwight Jones who had jaws dropping, first with an end zone tip-and-catch near the end of the first half, and then with a spectacular one-handed grab to put the game out of reach.
And once again, there was Giovani Bernard, putting together his third straight game of over a hundred yards rushing, a last accomplished at Carolina by Natrone Means. He had another almost solo touchdown drive, where he carried the ball on seven on nine snaps for eighty-five yards and a score. He, along with the rest of the running game, was quieter in the second half, as the offensive line had trouble opening holes against a ECU front four who shouldn't have given them that much trouble. Bernard would still finish with 146 of UNC's 226 rushing yards, and is definitely the primary back, with 24 carries to a combined 15 from the other three Carolina players to carry the ball.
If there's a point of concern in tonight's game, it still lies with the Tar Heel secondary. Carolina gave up a lot of yards, especially on short passes in the second half. Dominique Dawes set a new ECU passing record with 417 yards, 166 of them going to impressive senior wideout Lance Lewis. UNC didn't leave anyone embarrassingly open like the previous week against Georgia Tech, but they did let a few players slip by them more often than I would like. A late game injury to Matt Merletti didn't help – there's no word yet on whether it's serious.
All in all, this was a goo road win for Carolina, in a game they were expected to win but could have easily stumbled. They now get to return home and face a Louisville team that was just shutout by Marshall, in what looks to be a very productive October for the team. More offensive performances like this one will help keep this team in contention for the Coastal division title and a better bowl game than in seasons past.