CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- T.J. Yates threw for two touchdowns while freshman receiver Erik Highsmith had a big game to help No. 24 North Carolina beat East Carolina 31-17 on Saturday.
Highsmith had six catches for 113 yards and a score for the Tar Heels, who are off to their first 3-0 start since winning the first eight games in 1997. His big day included a pair of key catches to move the chains on the Tar Heels' clock-draining drive that ended with Ryan Houston's 5-yard score with 1:58 left in the game.
Jheranie Boyd also had a juggling 59-yard touchdown grab for his first collegiate catch, and North Carolina got a solid all-around effort from its young offense to complement another strong performance from its defense.
East Carolina (1-2) got a touchdown catch from Jamar Bryant and a TD run from Dwayne Harris, but finished with just 247 total yards.
The Tar Heels had cruised past The Citadel in the opener, then had to rally 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 - and they responded with the kind of performance that should give coach Butch Davis cause for optimism in his third season.
Yates completed 19 of 24 passes for 227 yards while spreading the ball around to several talented but unproven receivers. Highsmith came up with a 16-yard touchdown catch for North Carolina's first score, while fellow rookie Boyd hauled in Yates' deep ball to make it 14-7 in the second quarter.
Highsmith made his biggest plays in the fourth quarter, after the Pirates had closed to within 24-17. First he took a quick out from 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 TD of the day.
That kind of production is critical for the Tar Heels as they try to replace the production lost when receivers Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster became NFL draft picks.
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.
The offensive line, which played without injured senior center Lowell Dyer, also opened up enough running lanes for Houston and Shaun Draughn. Houston's 1-yard score late in the first half put North Carolina ahead for good at 21-14, while Draughn ran 19 times for 84 yards.
The Pirates handed Davis his first loss as North Carolina's coach in 2007 with a last-play field goal in Greenville. 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.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.