Balanced Pirates end Kenan losing skid, roll over Tar Heels

Sep. 28, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora entered Saturday’s game with East Carolina hoping to at least stop the Pirates’ rushing attack and force them to put the ball in the air.

But the Tar Heels (1-3) couldn’t stop either facet of the offense as ECU torched North Carolina’s defense for 603 total yards of offense in a 55-31 win, the Pirates’ first in Chapel Hill since 1975 and first victory over UNC since 2007.

“I mean they ran it at will and threw it at will,” said Fedora. “And then the missed tackles were glaring when those came up. So I don’t know from standing on the sideline what the reasons were.”

Vintavious Cooper was a major reason why ECU (3-1) scored the third-most points by an opponent in Kenan Stadium history. The Pirates’ senior running back rushed for a career-best 196 yards on 35 carries, adding eight catches for 70 yards.

“Hats off to the offensive line,” said Cooper. “They played amazing today. This is just the beginning. We had to get momentum and today started it.”

Junior Shane Carden was 32-of-47 passing for 376 yards and three touchdowns for ECU and scored three times on quarterback keepers from 1 yard out.

The Pirates entered the contest in sold-out Kenan ranked 118th out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense. They were held to 46 rushing yards in a 15-10 loss to Virginia Tech two weeks ago, but finished with 227 total yards Saturday.

“I thought we did a great job running the ball,” said Carden. “I thought our offensive line played outstanding. They played physical in the run game and the pass game. I had plenty of time back there to throw.”

ECU was 8-for-8 in the

red zone and 12 different receivers caught passes led by Lance Ray, who had five catches for 84 yards and two scores. Justin Hardy also had a touchdown grab.

Pirates’ head coach Ruffin McNeill credited offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley for blending his calls well.

“He had a great game plan coming in,” said McNeill. “Balance is the key. I know it is on any football team. We want to be able to run it and throw it.”

ECU has won 13 of 15 games under McNeill when outrushing their opponent. The Pirates did that Saturday, holding UNC to 67 yards on the ground as the Tar Heels fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, trailing 28-10 at halftime.

Quarterback Bryn Renner completed 28-of-46 passes for a career-high 366 yards and three touchdowns for North Carolina, which visits Virginia Tech next week.

“You know, I don’t know if there was anybody offensively that was any good in the first half,” said Fedora. “I mean really. I don’t put it on Bryn. I’m not sure we did anything right in the first half, anywhere.”

The win was ECU’s first in an ACC stadium since 2006 and the Pirates defeated the Tar Heels for just the third time in series history.

Cooper, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, is in his second campaign at ECU after transferring from Southwest Mississippi Community College. The Georgia native said it didn’t take long for him to realize how much the UNC game meant.

“It’s for everyone, for the alumni, for everybody that’s played here,” Cooper said of the win. “It’s for the fans back home in Greenville. It’s for Coach Ruff. It’s for everyone.”

McNeill never beat UNC as a Pirate player in the 1970s although he was part of a tie in 1978.

“In-state games are big,” said McNeill. “The rivalry is there. Nobody can deny that was a big game. The coaching side of me wanted to win it for the kids. It’s good to get the win. This is a big win for us.”

And a step in the right direction for a program that entered the season with high expectations.

ECU has one more ACC opponent left on its schedule with a trip to N.C. State slated for Nov. 23. The Pirates return to Conference USA play next week at Middle Tennessee State.

Contact the writer at kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.