A rousing performance seemed destined for a devastating conclusion for North Carolina in Tallahassee on Saturday night. Leading 34-28 with 6:15 left to play, the Tar Heels strolled up to their 41-yard-line on 4th-and-12 intending to punt back to Florida State. But deep snapper Mark House hiked the ball well over C.J. Feagles's head, and as the ball rolled toward the goal line the red-shirt punter attempted to kick it through the goal line.
Feagles’s foot made contact at the 2-yard-line, however, resulting in an illegal touching penalty and giving Florida State a 1st-and-goal at UNC’s 1-yard-line. Lonnie Pryor scored on the next play to give his team a 35-34 lead before T.J. Yates (24-of-35 passing, 439 yards, 3 TD) directed UNC on a 12-play, 72-yard drive that ate up the clock and set up Barth’s game-winning field goal.
Florida State marched down the field in the final minute, but Dustin Hopkins missed a 40-yard field goal wide right.
The first half delivered 512 total yards of offense and seven touchdowns between these two programs, beginning with Johnny White’s six-yard scoring run on North Carolina’s opening drive. FSU quarterback Christian Ponder (24-of-34 passing, 264 yards, 3 TD) connected with Willie Haulstead for a five-yard touchdown pass before Yates found Dwight Jones for a 67-yard touchdown pass five minutes later to give UNC a 14-7 lead after the first quarter.
Ponder threw touchdowns passes to Rodney Smith (27 yards) and Taiwan Easterling (seven yards) on consecutive series to move Florida State out in front 21-14, and then Yates knotted the score up with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Elzy. The Seminoles finalized the first half scoring with a Lonnie Pryor five-yard touchdown run to take a 28-21 lead into the locker room.
North Carolina outscored Florida State, 10-0, in the third quarter on a career-long 46-yard field goal from Casey Barth and a four-yard touchdown hookup from Yates to Josh Adams. Barth also added a 31-yarder early in the fourth.
UNC outgained FSU, 473-374, despite only churning out 34 yards on the ground.
INSIDE THE GAME
Defense Adjustments on Display… Again
The first half results for the UNC defense were not for the faint of heart. Florida State totaled 251 yards at a 6.6 yards-per-play clip with 11 first downs and four touchdowns to show for that production. The Seminoles rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries (4.6 ypc) and Ponder completed 15 of his 22 passes for 178 yards (8.1 yards per attempt).
The second half was an entirely different matter, however, as the Seminoles managed just 123 total yards of offense on 30 plays, good for a 4.1 yards-per-play average. FSU’s only points came on a one-yard touchdown run courtesy of Feagles’s illegal touching penalty.
Florida State failed to score on its first four possessions after intermission, suffering one three-and-out and garnering just four first downs in those series. Third-down conversions proved to be the key. Ponder was faced with four 3rd-and-forevers – 3rd-and-19, 3rd-and-18, 3rd-and-21 and 3rd-and-8 – on those drives.
Senior free safety Deunta Williams pointed to an increase in intensity as being the biggest difference in the defense’s second-half performance.
“We manned up and we said, ‘Look, we understand that we can go out there and play with these guys, we’ve just got to do what we’ve got to do,’” Williams said. “We moved Jabari [Price] in there and he did a heck of a job at the boundary corner this game. We stopped the run and took away the bubble, and that’s all they really had on us in the first half.”
UNC head coach Butch Davis indicated that his back seven did a “terrible job” in getting off blocks in the first half.
“They were throwing all of the bubble and jail-break screens and guys were just leveraging it and waiting on help to come,” Davis said. “We needed the guys at the point of attack to shed and get off the blocks and set an edge.”
Davis also said that the defensive line grew up in the second half and had one of its better games of the season.
Shoop on Fire
Offensive coordinator John Shoop has been criticized every which way imaginable for his conservative approach and lackluster statistics during his four seasons in Chapel Hill, but his play calling on Saturday night against a top-25 defense deserves praise as one of the best in recent memory for this Tar Heel program.
The Seminoles entered the game with a defense ranked in the top-25 in six statistical categories – total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks and tackles for loss – but Shoop sliced and diced Mark Stoops’s squad for 473 yards on 68 plays at a 7.0-yards-per-play clip.
“I thought he was hot,” Davis said. “He kept them off balance enough that they could never really get honed in. As much as at times they wanted to try to get into some eight- and nine-man fronts, it seemed like every time they were focused on stopping the run and controlling the box, we kept getting a big play down the field and that would loosen them up. We just chipped away in the running game.
“I thought he mixed it up extremely well.”
Despite Florida State shutting down UNC’s rushing attack (34 net yards), Shoop made use of short passes to keep the defense just honest enough for Dwight Jones (eight catches, 233 yards, TD) to slip past the secondary for a 67-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 56-yard strike in the third quarter.
“Coach Shoop called a great game,” Jones said. “We caught the defense slipping a couple of times and we were able to get a couple of deep balls on them today.”
Another Unexpected Victory
Butch Davis is making a habit out of winning games in which few ever give him a chance to win.
In ’07, the Tar Heels had lost four straight before upsetting Miami, 33-27, in Chapel Hill to invigorate the fan base. In ’08, North Carolina traveled to Miami after losing starting quarterback T.J. Yates the week earlier in a disheartening loss against Virginia Tech and rode backup Cam Sexton to a shocking 28-24 upset. Last season, UNC choked away a Thursday night contest against Florida State only to travel to Blacksburg one week later and upset the 14th-ranked Hokies on national television.
You can go ahead and add Saturday’s upset over the Seminoles to the mix. With fifth-string tailback Hunter Furr getting critical carries in the game-winning drive, the Tar Heels rose to the occasion and emerged victorious.
“Tonight, to be honest with you, was a microcosm of the whole season,” Davis said. “It seems like every week there has been drama and adversity and challenges, and that’s kind of the way this entire football game went. I think our kids proved again tonight their resiliency and their refusal to surrender in the face of adversity, to just keep fighting and play as hard as they could.”