The winning play, a fade route to the back right corner of the west end zone, sucked the collective breath out of Carolina's players, coaches and fans. Dumbfounded faces with mouths gaped open were all that could be seen among the throng Saturday following the crushing defeat.
Had an aircraft been passing overhead at the same precise moment, it would have been yanked to the Kenan Stadium sod by the massive gasp.
“It’s like someone gave you a great big body shot and all the air is sucked out of you,” UNC coach John Bunting said.
The Sun Devils (4-3, 1-2 PAC-10) drove 61 yards in the game’s last 36 seconds to set up their final score, with the key play coming on a 42-yard reception by Derek Hagan.
“Score, score,” ASU coach Dirk Koetter said following Hagan’s run after the catch. “If he had any speed, he would have scored right there.”
The loss overshadowed what was the Tar Heels’ finest defensive effort of the season, but proved that it was not yet competitive enough to slow one of Division-I's highest-powered offenses. With a well-protected Walter at the helm, ASU rolled up 598 yards of total offense. But until the last fateful drive, UNC kept coming up with just enough defense when it needed to the most.
“My mind just went blank,” running back Ronnie McGill said. “I couldn’t believe it happened. It hurts pretty bad.”
Still, this was a game the hard-luck Tar Heels played hard enough to win.
“We still beat ourselves,” quarterback Darian Durant said. “We just didn’t execute at crunch time.”
With fall fourth-quarter shadows moving quickly across the field, and perhaps the spirit of recently deceased UNC legend Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice watching overhead, Carolina (1-6, 0-3 ACC) summoned some much needed character to battle back from a six-point halftime deficit to take a 31-27 lead with 7:43 left to play in the game.
The Tar Heels forced the Sun Devils to turn the ball over on downs and punt it away on its next two possessions. But the UNC offense ran just five plays and punted twice during that stretch to give ASU the ball back one last time.
“This was a game we could have easily won, if we could have made a first down late in the game,” Bunting said.
Walter, Arizona State’s fifth all-time leading passer in just his junior season, completed 34 of 58 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Tailbacks Loren Wade and Hakim Hill combined for 202 yards rushing to lead the Sun Devils.
Durant, who out-dueled Walter in last season’s 38-35 victory in Tempe, Ariz., finished with just 167 yards on 13-of-23 passing.
“We played hard, we just came up short,” Durant said. “The game itself should speak for how we feel.”
However, despite allowing more than twice as many yards as it could accrue, UNC found itself down just 20-17 early in the third quarter.
ASU scored next on a Hill eight-yard touchdown run, but then the Tar Heels turned up a little offensive heat of their own. A 53-yard pass hook-up between Durant and Pollock, a defensive holding penalty and a trick play involving Willie Parker and some clever ball deception, culminated in a McGill one-yard touchdown run to bring the Tar Heels within a field goal heading into the fourth quarter.
“It’s tough, especially when you knew you were so close,” Parker said. “We ran the ball well at times and made big plays at times. We just didn’t capitalize when we needed to capitalize.”
The Sun Devils struck from the opening kickoff, moving 64 yards on four plays with lightning quickness in the game’s first two minutes. Walter’s only pass on the drive was a 49-yard touchdown to Derek Hagan, who had to come back for the ball and then broke a tackle to get free down the sideline. However, ASU led just 6-0 following Jonas Seawright’s block of the extra point attempt.
Carolina came out of the gate throwing, but then rode the rushing of McGill and Jacque Lewis to answer with on a 1-yard touchdown run by the true freshman from Clover, S.C. Following Dan Orner’s PAT, the Tar Heels led 7-6.
UNC immediately returned to the red zone, when the Tar Heel defense came up with a big play. After getting flushed out of the pocket, Walter tried what was supposed to be a safety valve screen pass to fullback Mike Karney. But Karney dropped an easy catch and while standing still at his own 30-yard line disgusted with himself, UNC defensive end Tommy Davis swept in and scooped up the fumble and rumbled down to the ASU 11.
“I kind of wondered for a minute,” Davis said. “Then I saw the referee running, so I took off running too. I wish I’d had run hard from the get-go. I would have scored.”
Davis’ heady play would not go without reward. On the very next play, Scott bounced off the left side of the line and ran to paydirt to put his team up by eight points.
After a defensive stop, the Tar Heels were driving again and set up a 1st and 10 at the ASU 20. But the Sun Devils regained possession on a Parker fumble and quickly moved into Carolina territory. Following a 27-yard scamper by Wade and a 19-yard reception by Hill, Walter found Fulton in the corner of the end zone, who collected a bobbled ball in between Jacoby Watkins and Mahlon Carey for the touchdown.
ASU tied the score at 14-14 on a two-point conversion pass from Walter to Hagan, who appeared to fumble the ball out of bounds short of the goal line before striking the pylon.
The Sun Devils appeared to have scored again on a one-yard plunge by Hill, but a holding penalty on the play forced them to settle for a field goal and a 17-14 lead with 6:27 to go before halftime.
“We were looking forward to being very excited after the game,” Lewis said. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. We’ve just got to come back tomorrow and keep working hard.”