For a while it looked like another Louisville blowout victory, but the Cardinals had to hold off a furious fourth-quarter charge from North Carolina to notch their first 3-0 start since 2006.
Teddy Bridgewater tossed three first-half touchdowns and No. 19 Louisville took a 39-34 win over the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Trailing 39-14 early in the fourth, North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner fired three touchdown passes in the final 13:38. But his potential go-ahead score to Erik Highsmith in the back of the end zone on 4th-and-goal from the 4-yard line with 1:49 remaining was broken up by Cardinals cornerback Andrew Johnson, which sealed the outcome for the hosts.
"We just have to learn how to finish," Bridgewater said. "We can't take our foot off the gas. We learn something new every week, and this weekend it was learning how to finish."
Bridgewater threw for 279 yards on 23-of-28 efficiency for the Cardinals (3-0), who defeated in-state rival Kentucky, 32-14, in their opener before blowing out Missouri State, 35-7, last Saturday.
Jeremy Wright carried the ball 20 times for 114 yards and a score, Senorice Perry added 86 yards and a touchdown on the ground and Charles Gaines caught five passes for 78 yards and a score in the win.
Renner completed 26-of-41 passes for 363 yards with five touchdowns and one interception for North Carolina (1-2), which has lost two straight since downing Elon in its opener. Romar Morris added 149 yards receiving and two touchdowns on five receptions in defeat.
"From what I can remember from the first half, it looked like a lack of effort, a lack of intensity, a lack of passion, a lot of mental mistakes, you name it whatever could go wrong went wrong in the first half," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said.
Highsmith, who finished with 62 yards receiving on six catches, caught Renner's first TD pass of the fourth, a 9-yard hookup, which capped a 7-play, 65-yard drive and cut the deficit to 39-21.
Morris blocked a Ryan Johnson punt on Louisville's ensuing series, and Renner flipped a 5-yard score to Eric Ebron on the very next play, which made it 39-28.
Following a Cardinals three-and-out, Morris took a screen pass from Renner and broke through the middle of the defense for a 50-yard score and trimmed the margin to 39-34. Renner's pass fell incomplete on UNC's two-point try.
But the Tar Heels quickly got the ball back after Alex Dixon recovered an Adrian Bushell fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the Louisville 35-yard line. UNC moved the ball down to the 4-yard line, but Renner's pass on fourth down fell incomplete.
The Cardinals put points on the board on each one of their six possessions in the opening half, outgained UNC 391-167, and took a commanding 36-7 advantage into the locker room.
"It was a tale of two halves, where in the first half we were unstoppable on offense, taking the ball every drive and scoring," Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong said.
Wright had runs of 19 and 12 yards before Perry scampered in from 13 yards out, which concluded a brisk, 5-play, 62-yard opening drive. The Cardinals' two-point conversion attempt failed.
After Marcus Smith intercepted Renner's tight-end screen pass on the Tar Heels' ensuing series, Bridgewater connected with Charlie Gaines on a post pattern for a 32-yard score on the very next play for a 12-0 Louisville advantage. Once again, the Cardinals were unsuccessful on their two-point try.
John Wallace booted through a 22-yard field goal before Bridgewater found Eli Rogers for a 15-yard touchdown, which concluded a seven-play, 45-yard trek, and Wright capped a quick 5-play, 84-yard march with a 12-yard rushing score and upped the advantage to 29-0.
The Tar Heels finally got on the scoreboard midway through the second when Brenner hit Morris for a 44-yard touchdown, but Louisville got the score back with just 46 ticks remaining in the half when Bridgewater flipped a 4-yard TD pass to Nick Heuser.
Louisville outgained UNC, 462-410 ... The Cardinals held a 38:24-21:36 time of possession advantage ... Louisville opened the 2006 season 8-0, won the Big East and defeated Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl.