CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Brandon Tate put on a dazzling one-man show, scoring on an 82-yard punt return and putting North Carolina ahead for good with a 57-yard catch to help the Tar Heels hold off McNeese State 35-27 on Saturday.
Tate finished with a school-record 397 all-purpose yards for the Tar Heels, who showed little else in an unimpressive start to their second season under Butch Davis. In a game suspended nearly two hours due to weather, they blew a 14-0 first-half lead and had to rally from a third-quarter deficit against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent that outplayed them much of the way.
For all the preseason optimism that has abounded here, North Carolina had to rely almost solely on Tate's ability to weave through oncoming defenders or break free from the clutches of would-be tacklers on this night.
The senior started with a 56-yard return on the opening kickoff and had a 54-yard run that helped set up the Tar Heels' second touchdown. He also had a 38-yard punt return in the first quarter, finishing with 106 yards rushing and 93 yards receiving to break the school record of 339 all-purpose yards set by Derrick Fenner in 1986.
The 397 yards were second-most in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
Brooks Foster also had a touchdown catch for North Carolina, which compiled most of its 384 yards in the final 20 minutes. Shaun Draughn and Greg Little ran for fourth-quarter touchdowns that helped the Tar Heels stay in front.
Derrick Fourroux and Mark Fontenot ran for scores to lead the Cowboys, who scored 20 unanswered points after the game resumed. But after Fourroux's 2-yard score for the 20-14 third-quarter lead, the Tar Heels answered by going to -- who else? -- Tate.
Facing a third-and-6 near midfield, T.J. Yates heaved the ball deep to Tate, who caught it in stride and raced into the end zone for a 21-20 lead with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
Tate later broke the school record in fitting fashion, taking a handoff to the right side, then breaking free from Joshua Ellison -- who had a hold of Tate's collar -- and reversing field for a 20-yard gain early in the fourth.
The Tar Heels came into the season as the popular choice to challenge Virginia Tech for the ACC's Coastal Division crown. But North Carolina went three-and-out on its first drive, lost a fumble on its second and went three-and-out on its third before Tate scored on his 82-yard return.
Ultimately, the only thing that slowed Tate was the weather.
Officials suspended the game due to lightning with North Carolina leading 14-0 on Foster's short TD catch with 12:03 left in the first half. Both teams headed to the locker room before heavy rain arrived in a delay that lasted 1 hour, 48 minutes. A large chunk of the home crowd didn't return, and halftime was reduced to 5 minutes.