CHAPEL HILL – While the pressure of NCAA and internal investigations perpetually surrounds the North Carolina football program, its on-the-field product continues to improve. The Tar Heels dominated once-fierce rival Clemson Saturday in a methodical and complete 21-16 victory at Kenan Stadium.
This was Carolina’s first win over the Tigers since 2001, having lost in 2002, 2003 and 2006.
UNC (3-2, 1-1 ACC) has run off three consecutive wins since its 0-2 start, as key players continue to trickle in with newfound eligibility and younger talent coming of age.
“It just didn’t seem like anything would go our way the first two weeks, where we were a drive away from winning both of those games. Now, finally, things are changing and starting to go our way,” said UNC tailback Johnny White, a shifty, versatile runner who almost single-handedly closed out the Tar Heels’ last two opponents.
The school announced this week the results and possible punishment from a nationally widespread NCAA probe involving premature agent contact may not come down for over a year. Carolina is at the center of the controversy.
But instead of playing out the string, the Tar Heels have performed better with each game, with hopes of an ACC title and/or Top 25 finish still attainable. Meanwhile, the Tigers (2-3, 0-2), losers now of three straight, have slipped into the league’s second division.
White, who broke UNC legend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice’s career rushing mark at Asheville High School, has emerged as the Tar Heels’ most lethal offensive weapon. He has combined for 319 yards of UNC’s total offense the past two games, rushing for a pair of touchdowns and catching six passes for 90 yards versus Clemson.
“We just got a little momentum going,” White said. “The offensive line just started digging in and blocking their tails off, and I just ran behind them.”
Quarterback T.J. Yates improved his season TD-to-INT ration to 8-to-1, completing 18 of 34 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown.
And for the first time in over 13 years, Carolina has gone two straight contests without committing a turnover.
Carolina has ratcheted up its defensive intensity, as well; most recently with this week’s return of All-ACC safety Deunta Williams. His presence further solidified a secondary that would have held Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker to just 140 yards passing were it not for a his 74-yard third quarter touchdown pass to Jaron Brown.
The Tar Heels never trailed in the game and took a 14-3 lead just before halftime, when Yates found Jheranie Boyd who took a severe hit but held on to score from 9 yards out.
“I seen it coming,” Boyd said. “I tried to hit him and bounce in the end zone, but he hit me and bounced me in the end zone. I just tried to hold onto the ball.”
The Tigers’ best highlight occurred with 5:31 to go in the game, when Brown slipped by a UNC defender and took a pass 74 yards to pull the Tigers within five points. However, following a failed two-point attempt, the Tar Heels ran the clock down to 13 seconds, only enough time for Parker to throw three deep incomplete passes.