As a player who has always been willing to shoulder the blame when games didn't go UNC's way, tonight he had other players, like Zack Pianalto, who were ready to absolve their senior quarterback. Why didn't UNC win?
"It was pretty simple," Pianalto said. "T.J. threw great balls and I just didn't catch them. I thought I ran a great route on the second to last play, it was intended to go to me and T.J. put it right on the money where it needed to be and I dropped it. The second play, I was more of a check down, but he put it where only I could get it, and once again, I just didn't come up with it."
Truth be told, it wasn't Yates, Pianalto, or the offense that put UNC in such a hole to require an improbable comeback attempt – oddly enough, it wasn't even the depleted defense, it was the UNC coverage teams.
Though it was a blistering comeback attempt, Yates's heroics didn't start in the fourth quarter. Even after a devastating first half that saw UNC give up 30 points to the LSU Tigers, Yates's stat line was more than respectable at intermission – he was 11-of-19 for 138 yards and a touchdown, including a 75-yard completion to Jhay Boyd. And it should have been two touchdowns, as Devon Ramsey dropped a touchdown pass that led to UNC's field goal in the second quarter.
The Tar Heels got precious little on the ground against LSU – with their top two rushers held out because of the ongoing NCAA investigation - on the night they earned only 33 yards on 24 attempts, a 0.7 yard-per-carry average. Despite have no running game except for some hard running by Anthony Elzy in the third quarter, Yates persevered into the fourth quarter. He didn't make the "big" mistake that's haunted him in the past. He also mixed things up, getting a variety of receivers into the act.
"We've been practicing this way with these guys pretty much all training camp, working with these guys all summer long, developing a relationship," Yates said. "We can trust each other, we know where everybody is going to be, and those guys stepped up big today."
That fourth quarter, however, was something special. Having had atrocious starting position all night, Yates got things going from his own three by connecting on the longest pass in Carolina history, a 97-yarder to Jhay Boyd, who finished with six catches for 221 yards, becoming only the fourth UNC receiver to catch for over 200 yards in a single game, and the second-most in UNC history, passing the 218 yards Hakeem Nicks had in the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl against West Virginia.
Boyd led the highlight reel, but Yates connected with eight different receivers, including Pianalto's eight catches on the night for 74 yards – but the go-to tight end would have dearly loved to have made that nine catches. The two missed opportunities to catch the game-winning ball in the final seconds doesn't change a thing for Yates.
"In that situation, I am going to "17," and that's not going to change after this game," Yates said. "He's my go-to guy …I don't know what happened on the plays, I couldn't really tell, but I know Zack's down right now about those last two plays, but nothing's going to change after this game."
Another player who had a bit of a coming out party was Josh Adams, who made some key catches in that furious second half comeback.
"Josh (Adams) came in and stepped up," Boyd said. "I am so proud of Josh, he's been working so hard all training camp, he worked hard last year, he just made plays for us and that's what Josh does and it went onto the field today and I just proud of him."
Yates finished the evening going 28-for-46 for 412 yards and three touchdowns, against zero interceptions – a passing efficiency rating of 157.63, certain to be one of the higher marks in the FBS division after this weekend. It was a remarkable performance for a player who has had more than his share of detractors among the fans, but fewer among his teammates.
"I am not surprised (at Yates's performance)," Boyd said, "T.J. can have a game like that at any time. T.J. is a great quarterback, he's going to be our quarterback for the rest of the year, and we trust in him to have these big games every game."
What did head coach Butch Davis tell Yates after the game? "How proud I was of him," an emotional Davis said. "He is a strong kid in his heart and in his mind."
Yates's moment in the limelight may be short-lived. After all, in this sport they say you're only as good as your last game. But this one will be tough to forget.