No. 18 North Carolina took the Georgia Dome field without the baker’s dozen that included eight starters following Friday’s suspension spree in Chapel Hill. The first half provided a comedy of errors for the Tar Heels, who built a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter before the Tigers delivered three touchdowns of 50 yards or more (50, 51, 87). North Carolina added two points for its opponent with an ill-timed shotgun snap that sailed past T.J. Yates (28-of-46 passing, 412 yards, 3 TD) and eventually rolled out of the end zone.
North Carolina fought its way back into the game on a school-record 97-yard touchdown reception by Jhay Boyd (six catches for 221 yards, TD) with 10:34 remaining in the fourth quarter, and then Yates found Erik Highsmith for a 14-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 30-24 with 2:32 left to play.
The Tar Heels had a 2nd-and-1 at LSU’s six-yard line with six seconds to play, but a pair of passes to Zack Pianalto (eight catches, 74 yards) in the end zone fell incomplete.
“We didn’t play this for any moral victories,” UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference. “We came here to play this game to win this game.”
North Carolina outgained LSU, 436-313, while also winning the turnover margin, 5-3.
Marvin Austin (DT), Kendric Burney (CB), Charles Brown (CB), Michael McAdoo (DE), Robert Quinn (DE), Greg Little (WR) and Deunta Williams (S) were all declared ineligible for the season-opener for violating NCAA and/or school rules. Six others – Shaun Draughn (RB), Ryan Houston (RB), Brian Gupton (S), Da’Norris Seacy (S), Jonathan Smith (S) and Linwan Euwell (DE) – were held out of the game as UNC officials work to gather more information to determine their eligibility.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Fourth Quarter
LSU’s first play in the final stanza resulted in a seven-yard completion from Jordan Jefferson (15-of-21, 151 yards, 2 TD) to Terrance Tolliver for a first down. Seven plays later, the Tigers had reached the UNC red zone for the third time and were looking to deliver the knockout blow that a 27-point lead provides.
But a holding call and an intentional grounding penalty allowed North Carolina to escape the series without any points surrendered, and Yates promptly responded with the 97-yard bomb to Boyd. That one single play re-energized a tired and inexperienced defense missing six starters, as the Tar Heels limited LSU to only 24 more yards on seven plays the rest of the game.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of kids and the way that they fought to get themselves back into a ball game,” Davis said.
A quick three-and-out set the table for a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended in the 14-yard Yates-to-Highsmith connection with 2:32 to play. Davis is known and often criticized for his conservative approach, but UNC elected to try for an onsides kick despite having two timeouts on the board. The call worked, but the ensuing possession did not.
All the Tigers had to do was grind out a first down and victory would be theirs, but a vicious hit by Tre Boston on 3rd-and-5 knocked the ball out of Stevan Ridley’s hands and into Quan Sturdivant’s mitts, setting the stage for five straight Yates’ completions that ultimately ended on the six-yard line.
“We were trying to get five guys out and five guys into the end zone, knowing that we couldn’t complete a pass that was short of the goal line with six seconds and two seconds left in the ball game,” Davis said.
Yates’ first pass to Pianalto on 2nd-and-1 grazed off the senior tight end’s shoulder pads, while the second – and final – attempt went through Pianalto’s arms as he was blanketed by a LSU defender in the end zone.
North Carolina outgained LSU, 240-66, in the fourth quarter while forcing two turnovers.
“We had guys that never quit,” Pianalto said. “We were down 30-10 and we came back and had a chance to win at the end.”
Hidden Yardage Horrors
With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, North Carolina had already started four drives inside its own 20-yard line. Nine minutes later, LSU was dealt its worst starting field position of the evening – at its own 31-yard line.
LSU capitalized on two Tar Heel turnovers in enemy territory early and then let return phenom Patrick Peterson take care of the rest as the Tigers dominated the field position battle. LSU’s average starting spot was its 46-yard line, while UNC’s average starting position was its 23-yard line.
Peterson provided his own highlight reel, returning seven kicks for 257 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown on a punt return. The Pompano Beach, Fla. junior was so elusive that UNC punter Grant Schallock drew a loud ovation from the crowd after he kicked his first punt of the second half out of bounds.
Those special teams woes brought back images of Davis’ ’07 squad that lacked depth and experience, often rearing its head on kick and punt returns. Without 13 veterans on Saturday, the Tar Heels once again turned to their youth to fill those special teams units.
“All of the guys that were starting on defense originally used to be on all of our special teams,” Davis said. “… I know that we probably burned at least eight red-shirts tonight that we never had any intention to probably two weeks ago… It depleted our football team.”
The Trials and Joys of Inexperience
The mistakes were sometimes blatantly obvious. LeCount Fantroy touching a dead ball punt on UNC’s five-yard line is one, Hunter Furr picking up a bobbled kickoff and falling out of the end zone to the four-yard line is another, and Jonathan Cooper’s shotgun snap past Yates for a safety may have been the worst of all. And you knew Jefferson would eventually pick on true freshman corner Tre Boston, as he did in finding Rueben Randle for a 51-yard touchdown on a post route.
Given the circumstances, those types of mistakes are not uncommon. But while some players are easily overwhelmed, the youth and inexperience on the Tar Heel roster persevered on Saturday night.
Boston overcame the Randle touchdown by forcing Ridley’s fumble with 1:08 remaining to play. Donte Paige-Moss found his groove at defensive end as the game wore on, and Josh Adams stepped up and made some big catches at wide receiver. Despite their rawness, players made plays.
“We said before the game that there would be some kids that would step up and surprise everybody,” Davis said. “That all they needed was a chance. ‘Just get me in the game, Coach, and let me see if I can play.’ And I think when we look at the film, we’re going to find some kids that are going to help this football team before the season is over with.”
If Saturday night proved anything, it’s that this coaching staff is stockpiling talent left and right.
“We can take away a lot of positive things from this game,” Sturdivant said. “Our young guys were stepping up. It just proves we’ve got more depth.”