CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's frustrated fans have spent nearly a year waiting for Butch Davis to start rebuilding a program mired in perennial struggle. Their first glimpse at his work offered plenty of room for hope.
Redshirt freshman T.J. Yates threw three touchdowns in his first start while the Tar Heels turned in a solid all-around effort to beat James Madison 37-14 on Saturday, earning a rare season-opening victory while giving Davis his first win here.
"You could just tell they were eager to go and play," Davis said. "These kids have got a lot of pride. They've got something they would like to prove: that Carolina can play football."
The win made Davis the first North Carolina coach to win his first regular-season game since Dick Crum in 1978, and it gave the Tar Heels only their third opening-day win in a decade.
But perhaps more important was the way the Tar Heels won. With an efficient offense, a determined defense and a few big plays on special teams, it was an unusually steady performance for a program that saw few wins and plenty of blowout losses in six mostly forgettable seasons under fired coach John Bunting.
"I wanted them to win for themselves," Davis said. "They're great kids. They've embraced the change and everything we've asked them to do. It's important to them to become winners and they're working very hard at that."
It didn't matter that the performance came against a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) team, which will be quite a change from future opponents like Virginia Tech, Miami and South Carolina. No matter who they played, this was exactly what the Tar Heels needed under their new leader, who rebuilt Miami into a powerhouse before spending four seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
"He gives us confidence," said senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, who greeted Davis with a big hug on the sidelines before the game. "He's going to tell us the truth and the guys know that. He tells us stuff and we listen because we know he's been there before. He's been where we need to be."
North Carolina scored the first 24 points and never was threatened by James Madison (0-1). It all started with Yates finding Brooks Foster on the third play for a 65-yard score on his first college pass, enthralling a sellout crowd still teeming with the optimism that began with Davis' arrival last fall.
Two possessions later, Yates rolled to his right and found Brandon Tate for a 28-yard score and a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. He also connected with Foster for an 8-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 30-7 just before halftime.
"I felt really comfortable," said Yates, who completed 13 of 18 passes for 218 yards with one interception. "We had gone over every single thing we were going to do probably a thousand times. It made me feel a lot more comfortable and everything go smoother."
The Tar Heels finished with 327 total yards while holding the Dukes to 250, with 79 of that coming on a meaningless touchdown drive in the game's final minutes. They also came up with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt that set up the second of two short touchdown runs by redshirt freshman Anthony Elzy.
It was certainly an improvement over the Tar Heels' last two meetings with FCS teams: the Tar Heels held off William & Mary 49-38 to open the 2004 season and had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat Furman 45-42 here last season.
It was a success by any standard for a program desperate to return to the success of a decade ago, when Mack Brown led North Carolina to consecutive top-10 seasons before leaving for Texas at the end of the 1997 season.
"I thought their kids played with more vigor and I thought they had more intensity than last year," James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said. "Butch is heading in the right direction with them. It's a better football team than I saw on film last year."
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