CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- One freshman ran with the steady confidence of being the go-to guy. The other managed a juggling 59-yard touchdown for his first collegiate catch.
It turns out No. 24 North Carolina just might have some receivers after all.
Erik Highsmith had six catches for 113 yards and a touchdown while Jheranie Boyd hauled in that long first-half TD Saturday to help North Carolina beat East Carolina 31-17, giving the Tar Heels their first 3-0 start in a dozen years.
Ryan Houston also ran for a pair of touchdowns, part of a balanced day from a young offense that had been plagued by dropped passes and bad blocking in its earlier games. North Carolina finished with 433 total yards, including a season-high 285 through the air, and put the game away with a clock-draining drive that ended with Houston's 5-yard run with 1:58 left.
Not bad for an offense trying to replace three receivers who were NFL draft picks in the spring, including first-rounder Hakeem Nicks.
"We're a work in progress," coach Butch Davis said. "Let's don't make any mistakes about it. We're going to have challenges. We're going to have adversity. ... But our kids believe in each other and the coaches believe in the kids and they just keep trying to find a way to fight and give us the best chance to play as well as we can each Saturday."
North Carolina hasn't been 3-0 since Mack Brown's last team started 8-0 in 1997. It opened with a romp against The Citadel, then rallied in the fourth quarter to win at Connecticut 12-10 last weekend. This time, they faced a veteran instate rival that had knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia last season on the way to the Conference USA championship.
The Tar Heels got another tough defensive performance, holding East Carolina (1-2) to 247 total yards. They also recovered a fumble, blocked a second-half field goal and got two sacks from Robert Quinn.
Only this time, the offense kept up the entire way.
"We see it at practice all the time," defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. "We know they can move the ball. They just had to get in a rhythm and go out and execute. I'm glad they've got that thing rolling now. It's going to help us on defense. We can pin our ears back and go get 'em now."
Highsmith was particularly impressive, starting with a 16-yard catch for North Carolina's first score. But he made his biggest plays in the fourth quarter after the Pirates had closed to within 24-17. First he took a quick out from T.J. Yates and sprinted 43 yards for first down. Two plays later, Yates rolled to his left and found Highsmith again for a 10-yard gain and another first down that ultimately led to Houston's second score.
"I'm probably nervous every game the first play," Highsmith said. "But after that, the game just slowed down for me. It felt like high school again."
In perhaps a good omen, Highsmith became the first true freshman to crack the 100-yard mark here since Nicks did it three times in 2006. Even better, he wears Nicks' No. 88 jersey.
"Their receivers showed more today than they had showed on film," Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. "They were dialed-in and focused. They did a nice job with it ... because when you watched them on film, they had dropped a bunch and their passing game was a little bit out of whack, but they were impressive today."
The Pirates handed Davis his first loss as North Carolina's coach in 2007 with a last-play field goal in Greenville. Patrick Pinkney threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but threw for just 157 yards and a touchdown in this one. He got no help from the rushing attack, either; East Carolina had 55 yards on 30 carries against the Tar Heels' defensive front.
Pinkney found Jamar Bryant for a 7-yard touchdown and the game's first score and Dwayne Harris later ran for a touchdown to make it 14-all in the second quarter. But Houston put the Tar Heels ahead for good with a 1-yard run late in the half for a 21-14 lead at the break.
East Carolina still hasn't scored a second-half touchdown, outscored 41-5 after the break this year.
"When you've got NFL-bound players coming at you every play," Pinkney said, "it's hard."
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