CHAPEL HILL - For Da'Norris Searcy, it was a big return both literally and figuratively.
In his first game of the season, after being cleared to play two days earlier, Searcy ran back an interception 46 yards to help the Tar Heels beat in-state foe East Carolina 42-17.
"I feel like a kid again," said Searcy, who was held out of the first three games of the season as part of the NCAA investigations. "I started playing football when I was four years old. I was just real emotional out there."
The senior safety wasn't alone in helping the Tar Heels secure their second win in a row.
Carolina (2-2) got career rushing and receiving performances from Johnny White and Zack Pianalto, respectively, while Shaun Draughn added three rushing touchdowns.
"Our game plan was to come in here and run it at them a whole lot," quarterback T.J. Yates said.
Yates was 18 for 26 passing for 181 and a pair of touchdowns, but he missed several big chances, overthrowing three deep balls over the course of the game that could have gone for touchdowns.
It didn't matter because being smart with the football was all Yates needed to do once the Tar Heels started wearing down the Pirates (2-2) on the ground in the second half.
Carolina ended up with a season-high 444 yards of total offense and had a pair of 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since 2004.
"You just have to keep grinding," guard Alan Pelc said. "I like it that way."
Carolina's running backs liked it, too.
White rushed for a career-high 140 yards on just 16 carries, eclipsing his previous best set two weeks earlier.
White passed that mark midway through the third quarter on a drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Yates to Dwight Jones. That score gave UNC a 21-17 and started a run of 28 unanswered points to finish the game.
Draughn started slow but really ramped up his production when White went to the sideline to get an ankle injury treated.
The senior, who has taken a while to shake off the rust after missing the season opener, put up 120 of his 137 rushing yards in the second half.
His three touchdowns all came in the last 15:03 of the game.
"The O-line was wearing them down," Draughn said. "We kept lining up and smashing them in the mouth."
The offensive linemen weren't the only guys who seemed to get better as the game went on.
For the second game in a row, Carolina's defense put the clamps on in the second half, holding the Pirates dangerous spread offense to just three points.
Carolina had the ACC's best passing defense coming into the game but had yet to face a team that really liked to throw the ball like the Pirates, who were averaging nearly 300 yards per game through the air.
The Tar Heels met the test by holding ECU to a season-low 347 yards of total offense - even without starting linebacker Quan Sturdivant, who was out with a hamstring injury - and intercepting quarterback Dominique Davis three times.
None of those picks shifted momentum like Searcy's, though.
ECU led 14-7 in the second quarter when Searcy saw a route he recognized from film and charged to where he thought the ball would end up.
The receiver broke off his route, but Searcy continued his run and hauled in the interception. All he had to do then was make ECU receiver Dwayne Harris miss, and he was in the end zone to tie the game.
"All yesterday in the hotel, they were asking me if I was ready," Searcy said of his teammates. "I was like, 'This is what I do.' When I got out there, I was all excited. I had tears of joy. The whole pregame, I was jumping around and crying."
He was doing the same after the game as he and his teammates bounced in the west end zone while the band played the alma mater.
Searcy's high spirits were contagious for the rest of the Tar Heels, who were glad to have him back and delighted to harness the momentum he brought with him.
"We're pretty happy right now," Yates said. "The guys on this team are excited."