Gio Bernard scored two touchdowns in his return from a knee injury and North Carolina took over after halftime to beat East Carolina 27-6 on Saturday.
Bernard had missed two straight games since hurting his left knee in the season-opening win against Elon, but he returned with a 14-yard scoring catch from Bryn Renner in the first quarter and added a 4-yard TD run in the third.
Bernard didn't have a big rushing day for the Tar Heels (2-2), finishing with 50 yards on 18 carries. But Renner had little trouble through the air, completing 27 of 43 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yard scoring pass to sophomore receiver Sean Tapley early in the third.
The Pirates (2-2) struggled to sustain drives all afternoon, twice settling for first-half field goals after stalling inside the 10-yard line and finishing with 233 total yards.
It was North Carolina's first home game since the 62-0 win in its first game under new coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels lost 28-27 at instate Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest the following week after giving up the go-ahead touchdown with about 2 minutes left, then nearly pulled off a stunning comeback from a 29-0 deficit before falling at Louisville 39-34.
North Carolina had slow starts both times, prompting Fedora to say he was still trying to figure out ''what buttons to push'' with his new team.
Of course, being without Bernard didn't help in those games even though A.J. Blue and Romar Morris had played well in his absence. Fans greeted Bernard's name in the pregame starting lineup announcements with a loud roar Saturday, and the sophomore quickly made an impact when he took Renner's screen pass and shed a tackler around the 8-yard line on the way to the game's first score at the 5:50 mark of the first quarter.
East Carolina hung around through the first half, putting together 14- and 15-play drives to push into scoring range. But the Pirates didn't reach the end zone either time, including when Shane Carden overthrew an open Danny Webster in the back of the end zone on the second drive. Instead, East Carolina settled for a pair of field goals from Warren Harvey.
North Carolina led just 10-6 at halftime but took control when Renner went deep downfield to Tapley, who got behind defender Joshua Hawkins for the catch then shed Hawkins' desperate tackle attempt for the 62-yard score that made it 17-6.
Carden fumbled on a sack on the next possession to give the ball to the Tar Heels at the 15, and Bernard ran it in four plays later to push the lead to 24-6 with 7:55 left in the third.
Carden threw for 124 yards and was sacked seven times as the instate Pirates lost to the Tar Heels for the fourth straight season.