LOUISVILLE -- Before Saturday's game, Louisville coach Charlie Strong was hoping his team could survive the first quarter against North Carolina's no-huddle, quick-tempo offense.
Turned out the 19th-ranked Cardinals had nothing about which to worry -- until the last 12 minutes.
In cruise control mode with a 25-point lead, Louisville suddenly collapsed and required a goal-line stand to secure a 39-34 win over the Tar Heels at Papa John's Stadium.
It appeared that North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner had connected with Erik Highsmith on his sixth touchdown pass of the day on 4th-and-goal from the 4 with 1:44 left. But backup cornerback Andrew Johnson ripped the ball out of Highsmith's hands before the senior wide receiver could get his feet down and the pass fell incomplete.
Johnson remembered that Renner used that play earlier in the fourth quarter to collect a touchdown.
"I lined up on the outside and then when the ball was snapped, I snuck back on the inside," Johnson said. "That gave me the leverage to get up under him. He can jump and you're not going to jump with him, so I waited for him to come down and I chopped down at the ball and knocked it out of his hands."
The Tar Heels (1-2) scored 20 straight points in a 7-minute, 39-second span to draw within five points, then forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff return to regain possession with 4:15 left. Renner, who finished 26-of-41 for 363 yards and five scoring strikes, guided them to the 3 before a false start penalty pushed them back to the 8.
A four-yard rush by Romar Morris set the stage for Johnson's dramatic play that kept the Cards unbeaten at 3-0.
"Bryn made a great pass to (Highsmith) and Erik did a great job of getting where he needed to be," said first-year North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. "You have to give (Johnson) credit. He did a great job getting the ball loose."
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater enjoyed his third straight brilliant performance, completing 23 of 28 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns. The Cardinals' alternating running backs, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry, rushed for 114 and 86 yards, respectively, as their offensive line blew open huge holes in the North Carolina front seven.
Perry's 13-yard touchdown run less than 5 1/2 minutes into the game kicked off a first-half avalanche. It was followed by Bridgewater's 32-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Charles Gaines and John Wallace's 22-yard field goal for a 15-0 first-quarter lead.
In the second quarter, Bridgewater connected with Eli Rogers on a 15-yard touchdown pass, Wright slashed 12 yards off left tackle and Nick Heuser caught a four-yard scoring pass from Bridgewater. Louisville finished the first half with 360 total yards, 19 first downs and a 36-7 advantage.
"I think we executed great," Wright said of the Cardinals' first-half performance.
Fedora said the Tar Heels, coming off a difficult 28-27 loss last week at Wake Forest, did nothing right in the first half.
"I would say there were a lot of missed assignments," he said. "You have to play with energy and enthusiasm play after play. I don't think anything was good about the first half, but I was proud of how we played the second half."
Meanwhile, Strong and his players vow to learn a lesson from how they closed out the game.
"We have to make sure we maintain our focus as players and as a coaching staff," Strong said. "When you have a big lead in the first half, that's when you have to really lock down and tell your guys to keep going."
Notes: North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and Strong served as assistants at Florida during 2003-04. Fedora was the offensive coordinator and Strong was the defensive coordinator ... The teams completed the second game of their two-year series that was agreed to after Tennessee dropped the Tar Heels prior to last season ... It was the final game of a season-opening three-game homestand for the Cardinals. They won't appear at home again until Oct. 20 as they play three straight on the road with an open date mixed in.