There was yet another senior called on to stand and deliver. After an entire season of playing second violin in the backfield, Shaun Draughn took every snap at tailback on Thursday night, and when the game was over, walked off with the MVP trophy.
There was yet another integral senior member of the team suddenly missing in action. On a play you don't want to rewind and show your kids on the DVR, Deunta Williams suffered a game-ending injury. You could almost hear the team catch its collective breath as the motorized cart came to take Williams off the field.
These Tar Heels seniors, all of whom Butch Davis was careful to round up to take the stage for the Music City Bowl trophy presentation, were participating in their third bowl game, and the margin of victory and defeat in all three games was razor thin.
The two previous years, they had to stand in the damp tunnels under Bank of America stadium following the game, responding to reporters' questions while searching for their own answers.
This year, several seniors found some of those answers on the field. From the blocks of Mike Ingersoll, to the interception by Quan Sturdivant to set up the win in the second overtime, to the never-say-die play of T.J. Yates, to the hard running of Draughn, to the steady play of Da'Norris Searcy - these Tar Heels never laid down, never quit, even though they were as good as dead – twice.
With 1:36 left in the fourth quarter the Tennessee Volunteers took over on downs after a 4th-and-California pass from T.J. Yates hit Dwight Jones in the breadbasket, and bounced to the ground along with UNC's hopes.
During the ensuing time out, which seemed to last a lifetime, the Tennessee fans began chanting, "SEC! SEC! SEC!" while the Volunteer band struck up their coup de grace song, "Hey, baby, I want to know-oh-oh, if you'll be my girl." The large and vociferous orange-clad crowd celebrated in the stands.
The Tar Heels got the ball back, but a long way to go and with just a desultory 31 seconds remaining, down three points. Game, set, match – right?
What followed was an improbable sequence of events, culminating in the straight-line EKG words of an official - "The game is over" - from which no win has ever been salvaged. Before tonight.
The technical mishmash of rules and the recitation of the blow-by-blow that allowed the Tar Heels to kick a field goal and send the game into overtime really aren't important, though they will be put under a microscope, particularly here in Nashville. No one, ten years from now, will remember exactly the sequence of events, the rules that came into play, or how it was that North Carolina beat Tennessee, 30-27, in the 2010 Music City Bowl – just that the Tar Heels won.
It is fitting that this team was left for dead – twice – during this game. These 2010 Tar Heels have been left for dead at about a dozen different points during the season (and preseason). At every point, after every piece of adversity, up to and including Anthony Elzy being ruled unable to play and the in-game loss of Williams, this team kept its head down and kept right on slugging away through it all.
"Tonight," head coach Butch Davis said," kind of typified this football team – its resiliency, its heart, its character, kind of a never give up, never surrender, (and) play all 60 minutes."
Tar Heel fans did not get the season that they expected or hoped for before this campaign began. They didn't get double-digit wins, a Coastal Division crown, an Orange Bowl invitation or ACC title. But the way it ended may help us all remember just how "special' a season it really was.