KENAN STADIUM/ CHAPEL HILLBefore kickoff the Pirates had several forces in motion that favored them to upset the No. 24-ranked Tar Heels.

ECU had won its last three games against nationally ranked teams. UNC entered the game with two key injuries on the offensive line, and Pirates quarterback Patrick Pinkney torched the Carolina secondary in 2007.

Not to mention seemingly all my ex-girlfriends attended ECU, so naturally I would be due several distasteful comments with a Carolina loss.

Yet 60 minutes later with the scoreboard showing 31-17 Carolina, one thing was clear. The lone force the Pirates couldn’t contend with was Carolina’s defense, which allowed a meager 55 rushing yards — building off stingy performances against The Citadel and UConn.

Here’s a stat for you: UNC is allowing only 1.8 yards per carry so far this season.

“We want to go out there and be the best defense each and every Saturday,” UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin said after the game.

The biggest surprise of the game, however, came from UNC’s young receiving corps. True freshmen Jheranie Boyd and Erik Highsmith each caught a touchdown and showed that the new No. 87 and No. 88 might eventually replace Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks.

‘I don’t know who is going to wear those numbers in the next 25 years, but whoever comes in, I would ask for No. 88,” coach Butch Davis said. “Erik Highsmith just puts himself in a position to make sure that he gives himself a chance to catch the ball and be in the right spot.”

Highsmith caught six passes for 113 yards — the first 100-yard receiving game for a true freshman since Hakeem Nicks did it three times in 2006. None was more crucial than the 43-yard reception on the first play on offense after the Pirates pulled within seven points late in the fourth quarter.

The Carolina running game also got back on track, totaling 148 yards on the ground after only putting together 35 yards against UConn. Running back Shaun Draughn nearly reached the 100-yard club, which would’ve been his second of the season. He accumulated 84 yards on 19 carries and showed an improved burst through the hole.

“To go ahead and punch them in the mouth and get the ball rolling … that was a big thing for the offense and a big push for the team,” Draughn said.

Up next for the Heels is Georgia Tech in Atlanta and the daunting task of defending Paul Johnson’s spread option. UNC beat the Yellow Jackets 28-7 in Chapel Hill last season, but Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt was slowed by an injury.

The Yellow Jackets rushed for 326 yards in that game but were repeatedly stopped on short yardage situations. This season Carolina’s front seven has allowed just over 52 rushing yards per game and will be an intriguing matchup against the Yellow Jackets.

But for now, Carolina is 3-0 for the first time since 1997 — the year the Heels finished 11-1 and ranked No. 4 nationally, and if the defense and the receivers continue to improve, this team will be in position to challenge Miami for the Coastal Division crown.