Looking back, I don't why I expected a season as crazy as Carolina's to end with a boring, run-of-the-mill bowl game. Sure, neither Tennessee or North Carolina was particularly good, and they were evenly enough matched that an exciting game could be in the cards. But I didn't count on the freakishly strange luck that had plagued both teams this season carrying over to Nashville. And I was wrong – this was the strangest ending(s) to a game of football I've ever seen.
But first, a brief discussion on how the game got to that point. UNC got on the board early, when Shaun Draughn fired off the longest run of his career three plays into UNC first series. Draughn took the ball 58 yards for a touchdown to put the Heels up 7-0, and when the Carolina offense struggled for most of the rest of the half, the defense took over. UNC intercepted Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray twice in the first half, although Kendric Burney immediately fumbled his pick back to the Vols. The secondary had problems, giving up touchdown passes of 29 and 45 yards, but Carolina shut down the running game, turning their opponents into a one-dimensional team dependent on a freshman quarterback. And when that second touchdown put Tennessee up 14-10 with 1:30 to play in the half, T.J. Yates came roaring back, firing off a four-pass drive that eventually found Erik Highsmith for a 39-yard go-ahead score.
In the second half, both teams slowed down, in part because neither team had a decent offensive line. Six of the first seven drives ended in punts. The one drive that didn't was UNC's drive that straddled the third and fourth quarters; it resulted in Highsmith having his second end zone reception yanked out of his hands and turned into an interception by Janzen Jackson. Highsmith had lost a similar ball in the Virginia Tech game, and this one looked just a soul-killing. It was doubly so when Bray marched the Volunteers down the field in the middle of the fourth, converting on a 3rd and 18 from the UNC 29 and finding Justin Hunter in the end zone two plays later. A badly missed extra point – it went almost directly into the Carolina defense's chest – kept it a field-goal game, but things didn't look good.
It looked even worse after what appeared to be UNC's last drive ended on 4th and 20, when a bullet of a pass bounced right off the chest of Dwight Jones. Jones had the first down, but couldn't catch the ball, and it looked like T.J. Yates' last game would end like the first two of the season, with great quarterback passes that were dropped by their intended recipients. With 1:36 remaining and two UNC timeouts, all the Volunteers had to do was run out the clock to give the Heels their third straight excruciatingly close bowl loss.
But remember, Tennessee couldn't run. Not against the Heels' defense anyway. Tauren Poole and Rajion Neal would finish with a combined 68 yards on the ground; in this critical series Neal would take three handoffs a total of one yard backwards. Tennessee would punt the ball out of the end zone, giving Carolina 31 seconds to get from their own 20 into field goal range.
It would take them one play. Yates found Todd Harrelson 28 yards away for his second reception of the season and third of his career. UNC would get an extra fifteen yards on the play when the Tennessee defender rammed his helmet into Harrelson's neck. This put the Heels at the Vols' 37; a twelve-yard pass to Dwight Jones on the next play made it a gimmie. A quick spike left UNC with sixteen seconds to spend before overtime. And then things went absolutely nuts.
First, Carolina would decide to run another play, ostensibly to center the ball for Casey Barth. Draughn gets seven, but is delayed getting up. The UNC offense rushes to spike the ball again; meanwhile in a second bit of idiocy, members of the kicking team proceed to take the field. There's pandemonium, tons of people are moving, the ball is spiked as time expires, and the game ends with Butch Davis the goat, mismanaging the clock so poorly as to make the college football world forget the name Les Miles.
And then the game un-ends. There's a review in the replay booth, and it's determined that T.J. Yates did spike the ball with one second remaining.Tennessee is forced to return to their sideline – they were halfway to the locker room – and watch in disbelief as Barth nails the tying field goal from five yards farther away than originally planned. (There were sixteen or so players on the field when the ball was spiked after all.) We've got an overtime. And even better, because of another Tennessee penalty – the Vols are in near-complete meltdown mode at this point – UNC gets to start at the Tennessee 12.
Four plays later, Yates would run a quarterback sneak to give Carolina the lead. Tyler Bray would answer in two plays of his own, throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass. He would leave the field making a throat-slashing gesture towards the Carolina bench, not particularly surprising because at this point the heavily partisan Tennessee crowd had gone completely nuts a half a dozen times, and both teams were being to fray around the edges. Barth had bowed to the Tennessee fans behind his bench after nailing his field goal, for instance. The gesture was notable, however, because the Pinstripe Bowl early that day had been decided by a celebration penalty slapped on KSU receiver Adrian Hilburn for a much milder salute. In a heavily reffed game, this was infraction #632 that one side or another would find completely unfair.
Bray's gesture would ultimately be answered by karma, in the form of Quan Sturdivant. Sturdivant, possibly the only defender left for UNC whose name you knew in August leaped up and picked off Bray on their second overtime drive, leaving UNC only needing a field goal to win. They took three plays, a sixteen-yard Draughn run to the Tennessee nine, a second, fate-tempting run to the six (Butch Davis obviously not learning from earlier), and the Barth kick that went through the uprights, ending this bizarre roller coaster of a season, and leaving the Tennessee crowd in shock and anger.
So many Tar Heels played their hearts out in this game, and I'm glad Carolina finally got the bowl victory they all deserved. Shaun Draughn would finish with a career-high 160 yards on 23 carries, the only back to carry the ball for the Heels. T.J. Yates would only throw for 234 yards, but find seven different receivers, including Ryan Taylor, who would set a new UNC record for receptions by a tight end in a season. Carolina would tragically lose Duenta Williams to a broken ankle in the first half, and almost lose Donte Paige-Moss, when his bare head collided with Quentin Coples on a quarterback sack. Paige-Moss would return to the game, and be a force at the end when Tennessee needed to be stopped.Carolina's defense, although it gave up too many touchdown passes, did get three interceptions, especially Sturdivant's when they needed it most. And of course Casey Barth was clutch, in some of the most bizarre circumstances a player may ever find themselves having to kick game-tying field goals.
They're going to be talking about this one for a long time, and although I'd rather this team go out with an easier and more definitive win, there's really no other way for this team to finish things. It's strange, it's ugly, and it takes more heart than I would ever expect a team to be able to muster, but these guys got their bowl victory. They should enjoy it.