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August 30, 2008

Tate rescues Heels in season-opening win

CHAPEL HILL - After Brandon Tate put on a display of lightning, it was Mother Nature's turn.

The latter might have undone any positive momentum North Carolina got from the former, but Tate got the last laugh. The senior wide receiver set a UNC single-game record for all-purpose yards as the Tar Heels opened their season with a 35-27 win against McNeese State.

"I was just trying to get a win for my team," Tate said. "I was feeling it from the jump."

Tate scored a pair of touchdowns---one receiving and one on a punt return---and was a shining bright spot in an otherwise shaky debut for the 2008 Tar Heels.

His 397 all-purpose yards broke Derrick Fenner's previous UNC school record of 339, and shoe-string tackle on the last run of the game was all that stood between Tate and the ACC record of 411 all-purpose yards.

That last 32-yard run---which gave him 106 rushing yards---made him the first wide receiver in UNC history to surpass the century mark in that stat category, sparking a raucous chant for Tate from the student section.

After the game, his teammates seemed to be equally thankful.

"If (Tate) wasn't there, we would have lost," cornerback Kendric Burney said.

Tate scored a touchdown and set up another one before lightning forced a 108-minute delay to the Tar Heels' season opener.

When the action resumed, Carolina didn't look like the same team and saw its early 14-0 lead over McNeese State disappear as the Cowboys scored 20 straight points.

After a five-minute, on-field halftime necessitated by the long delay, things didn't get any better for North Carolina.

It seemed like the only good news was when UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin blocked the extra point on McNeese's third touchdown, making the Carolina deficit only six.

"Probably the only fortunate thing to happen tonight was that we were able to escape with a victory," UNC coach Butch Davis said. "We clearly have got to play better."

But when the Tar Heels fell behind, it was time for Tate to shine again.

On the third play of Carolina's next drive, UNC quarterback T.J. Yates threw a 57-yard touchdown strike to Tate. He added a 23-yard reception on a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a 13-yard Shaun Draughn touchdown run.

"(Tate is) a huge-time player," said tailback Greg Little, who scored UNC's last touchdown on a five-yard run in the fourth quarter. "When you come out and play like that, the sky's the limit."

Outside of Tate's brilliance the Tar Heels struggled greatly on offense.

The Cowboys only out-gained the Tar Heels by seven yards, but they ran 23 more plays and dominated in time of possession by more than 10 minutes.

Davis admitted the UNC coaching staff might have been 'slightly hard-headed' in continuing to try to run against eight-man fronts when the deep ball was working so well.

But in the end, the only thing that mattered was how Tate was able to bail out his team.

His career-long 82-yard punt return for a touchdown got things started, so it was only appropriate that he added that last big run at the end of the day to seal Carolina's victory.

It was a performance that even the hours of bad weather couldn't put a damper on, and it is the reason the Tar Heels were able to win back-to-back openers for the first time since 1996-97.

"He is a special guy," Davis said. "He is electrifying."



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