PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- T.J. Yates threw a go-ahead third-quarter touchdown and North Carolina's defense made two late stands to lead the undermanned Tar Heels to a 17-13 victory over Rutgers on Saturday.
Yates gave North Carolina (1-2) the lead with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Taylor as the Tar Heels avoided their first 0-3 start since 2003.
Matt Merletti intercepted Tom Savage's pass at the Tar Heels 6 with less than 3 minutes left. North Carolina forced Rutgers to turn the ball over on downs after the Scarlet Knights took over at the Tar Heels 34 with 2:21 remaining.
Bruce Carter set up the Tar Heels other two scores with an interception and a blocked punt. The pick set up a 1-yard run by Johnny White and the block led to a 25-yard field goal by Casey Barth.
Mohamed Sanu scored on a 10-yard run and San San Te kicked field goals of 32 and 39 yards for Rutgers (1-2) which was playing its first BCS opponent this season.
North Carolina played without 12 players, including seven starters, because of NCAA investigations.
Unlike close 30-24 losses to LSU and Georgia Tech in its first two games, the Tar Heels found a way to win. Not only did they win, they overcame an early 10-0 deficit doing it.
The big drive for the Tar Heels came on their first possession of the third quarter.
Yates, who finished 22 of 30 for 204 yards and an interception, led them on a 14-play, 80-yard march during which he converted on three third-down plays and also got a pass interference call on another third down to keep the drive alive.
Taylor capped the march by bulling over on his 5-yard catch, although the officials reviewed the score when the ball came out of his hands near the goal line. He had crossed the plane of the end zone.
A 46-yard kickoff return and a personal foul set up Te's 39 yard field goal on the next series, but Carter's blocked made it a four-point game with 9:34 to go.
Rutgers seemed ready to add to the Tar Heels late woes when they drove from their own 22 to the North Carolina 23 with just over three minutes to play.
After a 4-yard run by Jordan Thomas, Tom Savage threw a pass behind Sanu and Merletti intercepted the ball.
On the Scarlet Knights final series, Tydreke Powell tipped a pass by Savage and had the last of North Carolina's five sacks to all by end Rutgers hopes for a 3-0 start.
Te kicked a 32-yard field goal and Sanu added a 10-yard touchdown run less than three minutes later to stake Rutgers to a 10-0 lead.
The Sanu score was set by a 21-yard fumble return by linebacker Antonio Lowery after Taylor fumbled after catching a short pass.
Rutgers had a chance to stretch the lead after taking over at the North Carolina 38 after a direct snap to the upback on a punt attempt was misplayed. The Scarlet Knights got a first down at the Tar Heels 17 and appeared ready to tack on points when Carter intercepted Savage and returned the ball to the Rutgers 28.
After getting a first down at the 1, White eluded David Rowe in the backfield and scored to cut the lead to 10-7.