The North Carolina Tar Heels gave the Auburn Tigers a lesson in ferocity, aggressiveness and smash-mouth football as UNC dominated the SEC West runners-up, 16-10, before a sellout crowd of 71,827 at the 2001 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
UNC's talented defense, which held Florida State and Clemson to a combined 12 points in the regular season, limited the War Eagles – 23-20 winners over then top-ranked Florida in October – to 176 yards, including 31 rushing on 32 attempts.
"We used that (ACC's perceptions) as motivation tonight," said a happy Ryan Sims on the field just moments after the game ended. "That's what we have been hearing all week that we were going to lose to an SEC team."
The defense also forced a pair of turnovers, registered three sacks for minus 34 yards, tipped five passes and had numerous pressures on the quarterbacks.
"We thought our strength (this season) would be our defense with our young offense," said UNC head coach John Bunting. "But we were all in great condition and because of our great preparation, we always had an opportunity to win."
UNC's approach was exemplified during Auburn's next to last possession. Ahead 16-3 with 5:31 left in the game, UNC opted to blitz on nearly every play as the Tigers moved the ball from their own 26 to UNC's 19. Understanding the War Eagles needed to pass, the Heels knew a Tigers' score wouldn't beat them, but causing a turnover would likely secure the victory.
Under extreme pressure on every snap, reserve quarterback Daniel Cobb, who had just entered the game for injured starting quarterback Jason Campbell, avoided being sacked until second and 10 at the 19. Cobb threw into double-coverage and was picked off by Michael Waddell. The interception was UNC's second of the night – and season - from a cornerback.
"That's our defense's mentality, that's the way we have been all year," said Sims. "Our coaches tried to go at them. They figured we got a younger guy (QB) in … we were going to blitz him and he was a sitting duck and we just blitzed him."
Despite UNC's dominance, however, the outcome suddenly became a mystery when Carolina punter John Lafferty dropped a snap allowing Auburn to recover at the UNC 20-yard line with 1:32 left to play and two plays later Cobb hit tight end Lorenzo Diamond for a 12-yard touchdown. David Duval's extra point made it 16-10 with 1:18 left. And for the third time this season, the Heels were on the receiving end of an obvious late-game onside kick.
Duval, this season's Groza award winner, booted the ball right to UNC's Richard Moore who handled it flawlessly and victory was in hand.
Of the Tigers' 176 total yards, 75 came in their final two possessions.
"I think this was a better defensive effort than the one we made against Florida State, especially since it was a bowl game on national television against an SEC team," said Quincy Monk. "We wanted to come out tonight and show we wouldn't be a pushover, and I think we did that. "I'm very proud of our seniors, and I think this helps to set the tone for next season."
"We had something to prove," said Peppers, who was in on six tackles and had a great first half. "We wanted to come out here and be our defense and be emotional and that's what we did. We set the tone early in the first couple of series and hit them in the mouth and I think we surprised them with it."
Willie Parker ran for 131 yards on 19 attempts but Ronald Curry, playing in his last game, was named the offensive MVP. Curry completed five of six passes for 25 yards but it was his 67 yards on 10 rushing attempts, including a 62-yard scoring run – the longest of his career – that earned him the award. Sims, who was in on six tackles and was in Auburn's backfield all night, was tabbed as the game's defensive MVP.
UNC finished the season at 8-5, including winning eight of its last 10 games. Auburn closed out its campaign at 7-5.
The Tar Heels' defense set the tone early when Michael Waddell stripped Auburn's Tim Carter forcing a fumble that defensive end Joey Evans picked up and rambled 18 yards to the Tigers' nine-yard line.
"We expect our defense to make big plays," said Evans. "Julius (Peppers) almost knocked the breath out of me after my fumble recovery. It's always fun to celebrate after a big play."
Two plays later Parker scooted around right end for a 10-yard scoring run to give the Heels a 7-0 lead after Jeff Reed converted the extra point with 9:34 left in the first quarter.
Carolina owned the field position battle for most of the second quarter. While allowing the Tigers just 11 total yards in the period, including minus-four yards on seven rushing attempts, the Heels kept the War Eagles deep in their own territory, limiting their versatility.
Auburn managed to move the ball into UNC territory late in the first quarter. But Tar Heels' linebacker David Thornton tipped a Campbell pass that was picked off by Errol Hood at the 37-yard line on the first play of the second quarter, marking the first time all season a UNC cornerback had intercepted a pass.
Although the Heels only moved the ball four yards, John Lafferty's 47-yard punt buried the Tigers at their own seven and from that point on UNC's defense controlled the rest of the half.
While the defense was in control the offense was struggling. Limited to a pitiful 23 total yards for the first 28 minutes of the game, UNC's offense woke up late in the half. Parker busted through the line of scrimmage for a 43-yard run to the Auburn 46. Two plays later Sam Aiken caught a short out from Darian Durant on the left side and raced across the field dodging would-be tacklers and finally being pushed out of bounds at the three-yard line. Unable to get the ball across the goal line, the Heels settled for a 22-yard field goal by Reed to increase the margin to 10-0 where it stood at the half.
Curry's theatrics came in the third quarter on a run that most will describe as Curryesque.
On first and 10 at their own 38, Curry dropped back to pass but Auburn defensive end Javar Mills broke through and was headed right at Curry. But the Hampton, Va. senior seemingly waited for Mills to get within a couple of feet before tucking the ball under his arm and tacking off. Scooting around left end, Curry moved up field eventually gliding along the right sideline. The key to the score, however, was wide receiver Chesley Borders' block around Auburn's 20 that allowed him to waltz into the end zone.
"They are a good football team," said Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. "They made the plays, and we didn't. They know what they are doing on defense. They have been winning with defense all year."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.