CHAPEL HILL (AP) — North Carolina’s defense is battling the same struggles from a year ago while its high-scoring offense is misfiring. Now the Tar Heels are in a hole that could get deeper in the coming weeks.
The Tar Heels fell behind big and never recovered in a 55-31 loss to East Carolina on Saturday, which marked the program’s second home loss to the Pirates and first since 1975. And unlike last year when the defense struggled to match the play of a record-setting offense, there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball.
To listen to senior tailback A.J. Blue, the warnings came hours before kickoff.
“I saw it earlier today,” Blue said. “Just from the hotel, the bus ride over, you know, the lack of focus, guys talking about other things. Like I said, it’s ECU and nobody expects to lose to ECU, especially us. So the complacency was there definitely there, the lack of focus was there.”
UNC (1-3) got pushed around up front defensively, couldn’t pressure quarterback Shane Carden and couldn’t bring down Vintavious Cooper. Meanwhile, its offense didn’t get going until the Pirates had built a 35-10 third-quarter lead. And things could get tougher with a trip to Virginia Tech looming next week followed by a Thursday night home game against No. 15 Miami.
“You find out about yourself when things are bad,” coach Larry Fedora said, “and right now, they’re bad.”
For East Carolina (3-1), Carden threw three touchdown passes and ran for three scores, while Cooper ran for a career-high 186 yards. Cooper added eight catches for 70 yards, powering the Pirates in a surprisingly one-sided win against an instate rival that had beaten them in each of the past four seasons by at least 14 points.
East Carolina’s only win here in 1975 came before four Pirates assistant coaches were even born. But ECU finished with 603 total yards, the second-highest total ever allowed by UNC at home.
Carden connected with Justin Hardy for a 6-yard touchdown on the game-opening drive, then found Lance Ray for a 7-yard score on ECU’s third possession to make it 14-0. He followed that by scoring on a keeper to push the lead to 21-3 with 10:05 left in the second, the first of his three 1-yard rushing scores.
He added a fourth-and-1 deep ball to Ray for a 48-yard touchdown with 3:33 left, allowing the purple- and gold-clad Pirates fans crammed into a corner section of Kenan Stadium to savor this one just a bit more. Carden came back out once more to take a knee, then walked to the sideline to hug offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley followed by fourth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill.
It was a strong bounce-back performance from Carden, who threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times by Virginia Tech’s rugged defense in a 15-10 home loss two weeks ago. He threw for 376 yards, leading a no-huddle offense that ran 101 plays — the most ever run against North Carolina.
As for Cooper, he didn’t reach the end zone but was the driving force behind the Pirates’ offensive success nonetheless. He cracked the 100-yard rushing mark on his first carry after halftime and finished with career-highs in yards rushing, carries (35), catches and yards receiving.
It marked East Carolina’s third win ever against North Carolina and the first since beating the Tar Heels 34-31 on a last-second field goal at home in 2007. Last year, the Tar Heels shut down Carden and the Pirates offense in a 27-6 win here.
This time, it was ECU’s defense frustrating UNC quarterback Bryn Renner. The senior threw for 366 yards with three touchdowns, though the first didn’t come until after Chris Hairston’s 3-yard run made it 35-10 with 11:38 in the third.