It was a bleak time for the North Carolina Tar Heels following a 16-10 win over Auburn on New Year’s Eve at the conclusion of the 2001 season.
With an exodus of talented and experienced players, most notably Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, and Ronald Curry, combined with head coach John Bunting taking full ownership of the program in his second year, UNC football was at a crossroads.
In which direction would the Bunting program go?
The 2002 season opened with a mid-major loss to a Ben Roethlisberger-led Miami of Ohio team. With a 1-1 record, Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill for the first time after leaving for Texas, and the result was as expected in a 52-21 Longhorn victory.
Carolina managed to win just one conference game that year, and finished 2002 with a 3-9 record.
It got worse in 2003. UNC opened the season with five straight losses. Their only victories that season were against East Carolina and Wake Forest.
To add insult to injury, the Tar Heels lost in the season finale against Duke, and the Blue Devils were in possession of the Victory Bell for the first time since 1989.
Needless to say, Bunting’s job was on the line in 2004. As it turned out, he remained on the hot seat at UNC until his dismissal at the conclusion of the 2006 season.
The 2004 season was a tough slate for the Tar Heels. By the end of the fall, Carolina faced seven ranked opponents in 12 games.
UNC opened with a win against William & Mary, but followed up with a loss at #15 Virginia. Then the Tar Heels prevailed against Georgia Tech, but then dropped two straight against #24 Louisville and at #9 Florida State.
The Tar Heels were 2-3 when the Wolfpack traveled to Chapel Hill. That was the (in)famous T.A. McLendon game.
Relive this moment, which I wrote about last fall in this article article about Kenan Stadium night games:
The final offensive drive for UNC stalled inside the NCSU 10 and Carolina was forced to settle for the field goal for a six-point lead.
The Wolfpack marched nearly 80 yards down the field in the final four minutes and seemed destined to take home the win. At the two-yard line on 3rd and goal, there was confusion among the officials if NC State running back T.A. McLendon crossed the plane. One official signaled touchdown, but there was disagreement between the refs.
After conferring (and probably receiving a directive from the ACC Commissioner’s Office via the power of telepathy, am I right?), it was decided that McClendon was down and NCSU would have 4th and goal from the one. Defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell then recorded his only hit of the game and the rest was history.
“We were cheated,” said McLendon.
However, that big win did not propel the Tar Heels. In the next game against #11 Utah in Salt Lake City, Carolina was thumped 46-16.
Next on the schedule was ACC newcomer and fourth-ranked Miami.
Again, from last fall’s article about Kenan Stadium night games:
Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC in the summer of 2004. These two football schools sought to shift the balance of power away from Florida State. The Seminoles had won outright or captured a share of the conference football title in 12 of their first 13 seasons in the ACC.
After the big win against NC State, Carolina went to Salt Lake City to face the No. 11 Utes and the Heels got it handed to them, 46-16. The Hurricanes were undefeated when they traveled to Chapel Hill to face the 3-4 Tar Heels.
With an extra week to prepare, UNC came out ready to battle and after a strong second quarter in which they did not allow a Miami score, the Heels took 21-14 lead to the locker room.
Darian Durant and Chad Scott were workhorses for the Heels, especially in the second half. Scott ended with 175 yards rushing, the most of any Tar Heel in a single game during the 2004 season.
In the final drive with the score knotted at 28, Durant led Carolina 55 yards down the field. He completed all four of his pass attempts and lined freshman kicker Connor Barth up for the final play with four seconds on the clock... and he was automatic.
It was pandemonium in Kenan as the Tar Heels knocked off Miami for their first-ever win over a top five opponent.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Miami Head Coach Larry Coker.
That 3-4 Carolina team took down the undefeated Hurricanes in what remains the program’s only win over a team in the AP Top Five.
The spread for the game has not been tracked down yet, but it was probably quite large. Miami was averaging nearly 36 points per game through the first six games of the season, while only allowing less than 16 for their opponents.
Conversely, the Tar Heels were scoring at a clip of 24 a game, while allowing 35 points per game.
The oddsmakers surely had the Hurricanes putting up 35 points and probably started discussions with a two-touchdown lead for the U.
When looking holistically at all the variables surrounding that game, including two dismal seasons prior, inconsistent play in the current year, and a strong Miami team, this is the best underdog performance by the Tar Heels in football program history.
Now, let’s enjoy the final play from that October night in 2004 with the sweet sounds of Woody Durham: