GREENVILLE — Earlier in the week, coach Larry Fedora stated that he couldn’t remember what happened the last time he brought his North Carolina football team to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to play East Carolina.
So the Pirates gave him something to help refresh his memory when the teams met again at the same venue Saturday.
They didn’t put up 70 points on the Tar Heels like they did in 2014. But the beatdown they inflicted on their UNC System cousins was just as thorough and perhaps even more meaningful.
ECU corrected most of the problems that plagued it in an opening week loss to NC A&T, while throwing in a few new wrinkles on the way to a dominating 41-19 win coach Scottie Montgomery called the most important of his two-plus year tenure in Greenville.
The Tar Heels, by contrast, could never seem to get out of their own way, consistently hurting themselves with mistakes of both the physical and mental variety, in a loss that might very well signal the beginning of the end of the Fedora era in Chapel Hill.
“I thought we outplayed them,” Montgomery said after his team rolled up 510 yards of total offense in winning for the fifth straight time against either UNC or NC State dating back to 2014. “I thought we played harder than they did.
“When a football team outplays a team just by playing hard, that’s critically important for a program. That’s working the body, and that’s exactly what these guys did today.”
The Pirates (1-1) came into the game as a 16½-point underdog, a spread that had a lot to do with their second straight season-opening loss to an FCS team. But unlike last year’s 34-14 drubbing at the hands of James Madison, ECU was the better team in last Sunday’s weather-delayed loss to A&T.
It played a major role in its own undoing by failing to run the ball, committing turnovers in the red zone and kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
Those liabilities became assets against UNC on Saturday as the Pirates rushed for 290 yards, went 11 of 19 on third down, didn’t turn the ball over and got into the end zone five times. Even more impressive is the fact that an ECU defense that ranked dead last among FBS programs in both points and yards allowed last season shut the Tar Heels out in the second half while twice stuffing them on fourth-and-1 situations.
“We wanted to come out and be physical. We didn’t want to let up,” Pirates quarterback Reid Herring said. “A lot of guys came out and played their butts off, kind of to send a message on how physical we can play, how our defense could play. We scored a lot of points, we took care of the ball and we got a great result.”
Herring, making his second career start, completed 19 of 32 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown. His effectiveness was enhanced by Montgomery’s creative use of freshman Holton Ahlers as something of a Wildcat quarterback, a look the Pirates didn’t show in the loss to A&T.
Ahlers rushed eight times for 41 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns.
“We’re trying to win in any way we can win,” Montgomery said of his decision to use two quarterbacks, adding that both Herring and Ahlers embraced the situation. “They hugged each other and we went to work. They’re team guys.”
As motivated as the Pirates were, it appeared as though UNC might match their sense of urgency during the early going.
With Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams and junior Jordon Brown establishing the running game and quarterback Nathan Elliott (22 of 38, 219 yards) hitting enough passes to keep the chains moving, the Tar Heels scored on five of their six first-half possessions.
Because four of those scores were Freeman Jones field goals — from 32, 44, 49 and 42 yards out — the Tar Heels still found themselves trailing 21-19 at the break. They also hurt themselves by not taking advantage of breaks the Pirates tried to give them.
On one 16-play, seven-minute touchdown drive late in the first half, they failed to recover two fumbles, including one after a strip sack by defensive end Allen Cater, and committed a late hit penalty that turned a potential fourth-and-22 situation into a first down in the red zone.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Fedora said. “We kept getting penalties, we didn’t finish any drives off. Give Freeman credit, he did a nice job for us. And then in the second half, we didn’t get anything going.”
UNC’s woes actually began on its final possession before halftime, coincidentally, on a play that saw Elliott complete a pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams for a 32-yard gain. Most of that yardage was wiped out, though, when Antonio Williams was called for targeting on a block that sent ECU defensive back Colby Gore to the hospital.
Williams, who had rushed for 96 yards on six carries to that point, was ejected for his infraction. And the Tar Heels (0-2) never seemed to recover.
They mustered only 78 total yards after halftime while running just 28 total plays. That compares to 238 yards and 42 plays for ECU. UNC was also failed to convert its last seven third-down attempts and twice failed to pick up a yard on fourth down to extend possessions.
“I thought the difference in the game tonight was the way our defense played in the second half,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know the last time I’ve been part of a shutout in the second half, also part of an offense coming out and basically putting up 21 and 20 points in separate halves. It was an all-around great game.”
As it usually is for the Pirates against an in-state ACC opponent.
“You have teams like that, that come in here and think they’re going to beat you no matter what the circumstances are,” offensive guard Garrett McGhin said. “To be able to go out there and put numbers on the board, that’s pretty special. There’s a special place in my heart beating Carolina and State at home.”