North Carolina had weathered one of the nation's toughest schedules pretty well, coming into Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium with a 3-3 mark Saturday night after having met four top-25 teams already and beaten arch-rival and No. 25-ranked North Carolina State last week.
But it's hard to play with a total of nine players taken out of the lineup by halftime, and 10th-ranked Utah rolled to its sixth straight win of the season, 46-16.
UNC's missing-in-action included three players suspended early in the week after being charged with marijuana possession. Then its top two tailbacks (Jacque Lewis, No. 6 in the ACC averaging 82.5 yards a game, and backup Ronnie McGill) were out with injuries by the time the Tar Heels took a 7-0 lead with 9:15 left in the first quarter. Also, right guard Kyle Ralph, tight end Justin Phillips, defensive end Melik Brown and defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy went down before intermission.
The injuries included three sprained left ankles (Ralph, McGill, Phillips), a bruised back (Lewis), bruised quadriceps (Guy) and concussion (Brown). McGill had missed the last three games and was considered doubtful for the game.
Behind the athletic quarterback that Utah coach Urban Meyer had fretted so much about all week, Darian Durant, the ACC offensive player of the week and a Davey O'Brien Award candidate who's ranked 14th in the country by The Sporting News, the Tar Heels were still competitive midway through the second quarter.
Durrant made a spectacular play to elude Ute linebacker Spencer Toone, who was close to a sack. Durrant got around him and threw on the run to receiver Mike Mason, who went 35 yards up the east sideline to the Utah 19-yard line to help set up a field goal by freshman Connor Barth 9:45 into the second quarter.
Utah led 17-10 then.
But then things began falling apart for an N.C. club that had lost to No. 15 Virginia, No. 22 Louisville and No. 9 Florida State.
Durrant left the game in the third quarter with a sprained right elbow and did not return, and the young Heel defense couldn't consistently cope with Ute quarterback Alex Smith and his many weapon choises. The Utes had the second-best offensive-yards total in school history, and the Tar Heels set a record for yards surrendered.
Just two minutes after the Heels had climbed back to 17-10, Utah scored again and, on the Ute kickoff, Mason's 29-yard return was halved over a teammate's late hit.
Utah ran the lead to 37-10 before Tar Heel linebacker Larry Edwards forced Ute Marty Johnson to fumble at the Ute 19-yard line and Jacoby Watkins recovered to give the Heels hope. That set up backup quarterback Matt Baker for a drive to the Ute 2, but the Utah defense held from there.
Edwards wasn't done, however. He intercepted U. quarterback Alex Smith on the Utes' ensuing drive, giving Baker another chance. Baker completed a 23-yard pass to Jesse Holley to the Ute 2, and senior fullback Madison Hedgecock doubled his career touchdown total, going in from the 1 late in the third quarter. His first career score came midway through the first period and helped N.C. to a 7-0 lead. It was also a 1-yard plunge. Baker's sneak for the third-quarter PAT failed, leaving Utah a 37-16 advantage.
Also strong for the Heels was its kickoff return team, which had runbacks of 41 and 33 by Mason and 15 yards by freshman Trimane Goddard.
North Carolina came into the game without its leading tackler, Fred Sparkman, No. 2 in the ACC averaging 10.2 grabs a game. It also was without receiver Adarius Bowman and defensive tackle. All three were charged with marijuana possession.