LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville went from cruising to 3-0 to desperately trying to remain undefeated.
Andrew Johnson deflected a fourth-down pass in the end zone by North Carolina's Bryn Renner with 1:53 left to give the Cardinals a 39-34 victory against the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Leading 36-7 at halftime behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and up by 25 early in the fourth quarter, Louisville survived a 20-point rally by Renner, who passed for five touchdowns and just saw a sixth go off Johnson's fingertips.
"We had to come up with a big-time play in a big-time game," Johnson said. "I saw (Tar Heels receiver Erik Highsmith) jump and I knew I would outjump him, so I got my hand on the ball and tried to strip the ball. ... But with (losing) such a big lead, no coach should be happy."
Cardinals Coach Charlie Strong certainly wasn't, despite the best start of his three-year tenure. While Louisville has proven it can score quickly and in bunches, it has also allowed Kentucky and Missouri State to regroup in the second half.
That annoying pattern almost cost them against the Tar Heels (1-2).
"At the end of the day we still won the football game," Strong said. "We have us a good team and we just need to learn how to finish."
Louisville scored on its first six possessions thanks to three first-half touchdowns and 218 yards by Bridgewater. He finished 23 of 28 for 279.
Renner settled down from a rough first half to rally the Tar Heels (1-2) from a 36-7 deficit with four second-half touchdowns, including a screen pass to Romar Morris for a 50-yard touchdown with 4:23 remaining.
North Carolina's Norkeithus Otis then forced Adrian Bushell to fumble the ensuing kickoff, and the Tar Heels recovered at the Cardinals' 10. But after moving to the 3, North Carolina was penalized for a false start. Two plays later Renner's pass for Highsmith was batted away by Johnson.
Renner was 26-of-41 passing for 363 yards with one interception.
"I thought second half we came back and competed our butts off," Renner said.
It marked a second consecutive close loss for North Carolina (1-2), which rallied from a 21-14 deficit to briefly lead at Wake Forest before ultimately falling 28-27. It was also the Tar Heels second straight game without star tailback Giovani Bernard. Receiver Jheranie Boyd also sat out.