Sam Aiken fell on an on-side kick in the final seconds to secure the North Carolina Tar Heels third victory in a row as it defeated East Carolina, 24-21. "I had to make a play," said Aiken, "and secure that football."
In a tough, hard-nosed football game, Aiken was one of several heros for the Tar Heels, who have now evened their record to 3-3 on the year, after beginning the season 0-3.
Perhaps the play of the game came in the fourth quarter when defensive back Derrick Johnson stripped Pirate return man Art Brown near the goal-line to not only save a touchdown, but to create a turnover. The ball tumbled though the end zone for a touchback. "I kinda figured that this year, I was probably going to get a strip," said Johnson.
Head coach John Bunting said of Johnson's play, "You don't see that happen very often, I have only been around something like that once or twice in my career." Brown's return and fumble came after Carolina had taken a 21-13 lead on a touchdown pass from Darian Durant to Sam Aiken with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter.
It looked as though the visiting Pirates might put away the Tar Heels early, as the Carolina defense found it hard to slow down the East Carolina offense. The Pirates took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead, then scored again in the first quarter on a 31-yard Kevin Miller field goal to run its lead to 10-0.
The East Carolina drives in the first half were fueled by the hard running of Pirate tail back Leonard Henry. When asked how those early drives affected the Tar Heels, Bunting said, "I thought we would settle down." Settle down the Tar Heels did, giving up only 54 yards rushing in the second half.
Chesley Borders caught a 29-yard strike to close the margin to 3 points at half-time, 10-7. On the opening drive of the third quarter, the Tar Heels took 4:47 to move 89 yards in ten plays to tale a 14-10 lead. Zach Hilton caught his first touchdown pass of his collegiate career as he came up with the ball intended for another receiver.
Dexter Reid came up with the first interception of the year for a member of the Carolina secondary, as East Carolina was driving the ball in the first half.
Both North Carolina quarterbacks broke records this day. Ronald Curry broke the all-time UNC total offense record with 5,521 yards during his career to date, surpassing Jason Stanicek. Darian Durant tossed two touchdown passes, bringing his total to eight on the season, breaking the freshman touchdown pass record previously held by Ronald Curry with six in 1998.
"This win should give us some genuine confidence, not cockiness, genuine confidence, " said an obviously relieved Coach Bunting.