With the Tar Heel offense sputtering on offense early against a surprisingly quick McNeese State defense, Brandon Tate took matters into his own hands.
"Fortunately for us, the only phase they didn't play as well was with Brandon Tate," UNC head coach Butch Davis said of the senior's highlight-filled performance. "Brandon had a phenomenal game, played extraordinary well on offense, played extremely well on special teams. We talked about it going into the season, he is a special guy."
Receiving the first kickoff, Tate returned it 56-yards. He followed that up with a 38-yard punt return. When he ran back his third kick -- an 82-yard punt return -- for a touchdown, you could almost see it coming.
"I had told my teammates (after the first two kicks), the third one I'm going to run it back, so get your blocks rights," Tate said. "My teammates trusted me and I trusted them and they carried me to the Promised Land."
He wasn't done yet. With a fumble, a dropped pass on a deep ball, and the inability to convert on third down, the UNC offense was struggling until Tate reeled off a 54-yard run to set up a T.J.Yates-to-Brooks Foster touchdown. That 14-point cushion came almost entirely courtesy of Tate, who rolled up 230 all-purpose yards in the process.
After McNeese State had outplayed the Tar Heels and fought back into the lead, 20-14, Tate caught a 57-yard touchdown pass from Yates, putting the Heels back on top.
When all was said and done, Tate set the single-game all-purpose yardage record with 397 yards, shattering the previous high of 339 set by Derrick Fenner in 1986.
"I felt real good to start off like this," Tate said. "I just got to keep repeating it and doing the best I can every week."
Mullins Rallies the Troops
The Tar Heel defense produced three consecutive three-and-outs after the Cowboys took the lead at 20-14. An impassioned speech by reserve defensive tackle Aleric Mullins got the defense fired up after McNeese State made its comeback.
"Aleric Mullins stood up, he definitely put to our defense, that there is no "off" plays, he definitely got in to each and every one of us," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "Al is usually a quiet guy and doesn't say much."
E.J. Wilson agreed, "When he steps up and says something, he means business and that kind of got us fired up."
In a change from last year, the Tar Heels did not rotate their defensive linemen frequently. Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas played every snap for the entire first quarter. Aleric Mullins and Tydreke Powell entered the game at the start of the second quarter, and Powell made a noticeable difference on a couple of key plays – including on a fourth-down stop and fumble recovery.
"This year we have a lot more young guys so we are just trying to get them in the mix (slowly)," said Wilson. "As the season goes along, those guys will mature and start getting more playing time and the rotation will get back to normal."
"We might should have played a few more of those guys and gotten their feet wet a little bit," Davis reflected postgame. "I think certainly late in the fourth quarter some of our guys were tired. I think we missed an opportunity to maybe have played some of those guys a little earlier."
Vince Jacobs, Darius Powell, Tavorris Jolly, and Chase Rice come in as the nickel, pass-rushing package, as linebackers Mark Paschal and Bruce Carter exit. Other than the one nickel package, E.J. Wilson and Darrius Massenburg played the majority of snaps at defensive end.
Running Game Struggles
The fireworks that started the game were nice, the lightning that stopped the game was impressive, but the much anticipated debut of a new-and-improved running game was a dud. Greg Little never seemed to be able to get in a rhythm (14 carries, 37 yards). Late in the third quarter, Shaun Draughn replaced Little, initially with the same results. As he got more carries, however, Draughn began to get in sync, and scored his first touchdown as a Tar Heel. Draughn's 13-yard run put UNC up 28-20. Later, after a 71-yard reception by Hakeem Nicks brought the Heels to the nine-yard line, Little scored on a five-yard run.
Davis got as close as he gets to being critical with some veiled comments reflecting disappointment in the offensive line. "We've got to do a better job at the point of attack," the coach said. "We can't have the penetration that we had and not allow (the backs) to have an opportunity to get to the line of scrimmage. You can hand the ball to Barry Sanders and if everybody has great penetration he's not going to have a very good night either."
Davis also thought that the coaching staff may have tried to work too hard to establish the running game and stuck with it too long at the beginning of the game.
"Some of the big plays we got in the passing game are things that were there, and they were there because of the nature of which they were playing defense, they were playing a lot of eight-man front, playing a lot of fire zones and blitzes to try to give you bad plays in the running game - and they succeeded. We kept trying to be hard-headed and trying to establish the run and trying to get some momentum at the beginning of the season instead of coming out and saying, ‘Okay, we're going to throw the ball 60 times tonight and not feel like we're making any progress as a football team.'"