ATLANTA – No. 18 North Carolina almost pulled the shocker of the early college football season when its rally from 20 points down fell short. Despite two chances from the six-yard line to win the game, 21st ranked LSU held off the depleted Tar Heels Saturday in the Chick-Fil-A-Kickoff Classic, 30-24.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of kids in the way that they fought to get themselves back into a ballgame,” UNC coach Butch Davis said.
After falling behind 10-7, the heavily favored Tigers scored three touchdowns of 50 yards or more and recorded a safety in 5:56 span of the second quarter. And with a baker’s dozen of key UNC players shelved indefinitely, LSU appeared on its way to turning what was supposed to be an intriguing match-up into a laugher.
In all, 13 UNC players – eight starters – missed the trip either ruled ineligible or held out pending an internal school investigation into possible NCAA violations and potential academic misconduct.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half,” Davis said. “We started off and had a little tiny bit of success, but we made so many mistakes in the kicking game that we really put ourselves in a hole. I told the kids that one thing that defines you is your character, your guts, your ability to compete, to never surrender.”
After looking dead in the water throughout the third quarter, Carolina and its much-maligned senior quarterback T.J. Yates caught lightning in a bottle. A 97-yard touchdown pass to Jheranie Boyd and then a 14-yard hookup to Erik Highsmith following a 13-play, 67-yard drive, pulled the Tar Heels within six points with 2:32 to play.
Then the UNC defense provided Yates and Co. with one more shot, when Quan Sturdivant recovered a Stephen Ridley fumble to place the ball at the Tar Heels 27 with 1:08 to play.
“If he doesn’t fumble, we go into victory formation and the game is over,” said LSU coach Les Miles.
Yates, who finished 28-of-46 passing for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns, led a final drive that ended with a pair of incomplete passes to tight end Zack Pianalto in the end zone.
Television replays showed what might have been defensive pass interference on the final play, but no flag was thrown, as Yates screamed for the call and while Pianalto just lay on the Georgia Dome turf in dismay.
“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.”
The six ineligible players were defensive tackle Marvin Austin, cornerback Charles Brown, cornerback Kendric Burney, wide receiver Greg Little, defensive end Michael McAdoo and defensive end Robert Quinn.
The six held out pending investigation were tailback Shaun Draughn, defensive end Linwan Euwell, safety Brian Gupton, tailback Ryan Houston, safety Da’Norris Searcy, safety Jonathan Smith and safety Deunta Williams.
The school has yet to announce how many games the players will miss.
“Our depth was unbelievably put to the test,” Davis said. “We were shorthanded in just a significant number of phases – defensively, nickel packages. All of the depth got eaten up on special teams. Guys were having to play way more plays than they needed to play. I think it’s a testimony to their courage to keep fighting and keep playing.”
The Tar Heels (0-1) have a bye week before they open the ACC season at home versus Georgia Tech on Sept. 18.