With Jason Campbell struggling for three and half quarters, the offense was stuck in neutral most of the night until Daniel Cobb got the call with 5:31 left.
The senior, who said after the game he hopes to return for another year under a special medical hardship exemption, put a spark in the attack.
He led the Tigers on their two most positive drives of the night, the only two series he was in the game. Unfortunately for the Tigers, only one produced points. The first ended in an interception and the second with 1:18 left was too little, too late when the Tigers were unable to successfully execute an onside kick.
"We didn't make enough plays offensively," Coach Tommy Tuberville said in the understatement of the evening. "I thought we played well on defense. They have some great athletes and are a great team. There are no excuses. We just got beat."
"Obviously, we are disappointed," Tuberville added. "At times, we gave up too many running plays. Our defense and kicking game were sound. North Carolina has a good football team. They have a great defense."
Auburn finished the season 7-5, losing its final three games, turning a potential championship season into a mediocre campaign. When asked about his team's year, Tuberville said, "We had a successful season. We just lost a bowl game. There are a lot of people sitting at home who aren't playing in bowl games."
UNC coach John Bunting said, "This was a huge win for North Carolina and a huge win for our seniors. We are very excited. There was a long wait in between our last two games, but we played relentlessly."
Auburn made the first blunder and it took just two plays for the Tar Heels to make the Tigers pay. Tim Carter took a swing pass and was hit behind the line of scrimmage on the first play of AU's second possession. The ball was stripped and returned 18 yards to the Tiger nine. On second down from the 10, running back Willie Parker was untouched as he swept left end for the score with 9:34 left in the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Tigers turned the ball over again. A third down pass by Campbell was deflected high into the air. Cornerback Errol Hood intercepted at the UNC 38 and was immediately leveled by center Ben Nowland. AU avoided trouble by forcing a three and out as Spencer Johnson sacked Darian Durant on third down for a three-yard loss on third and three.
The next Auburn mistake wasn't a turnover, but was nearly as bad. Campbell was called for intentional grounding, backing the Tigers up to their own three-yard line. Duval's 54-yard punt was returned 17 yards, however, back to back sacks by Alton Moore and an incomplete pass forced a punt. However, the Tigers were backed up again when Roderick Hood inexplicably called a fair catch at his own six.
After a delay of game on on first down, the Tigers came up a yard short and punted from deep in their territory again. This time Duval nailed a 61-yarder and the Tar Heels got the ball back at their own 41 after the return and the Tigers were temporarily out of trouble.
Two big plays helped the Tar Heels stretch the lead to 10-0 with 55 seconds left in the first half. After Duval's Peach Bowl record 67-yard punt backed UNC up to its own 11, tailback Parker found a big hole in the middle of the Auburn line, running past Dexter Murphy and Dante Booker, who had just entered the game. That 43-yarder was followed by a short pass on third and eight that caught the Tigers in a blitz, turning a small gainer into a big gainer and putting UNC first and goal at the Auburn three.
The Tigers then stuffed a running play for a two-yard pass and DeMarco McNeil and Karlos Dansby deflected two passes forcing the Tar Heels to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.
The first half went from bad to ugly for the Tiger offense when Ronnie Brown averted disaster by falling on a snap from Ben Nowland to Campbell for a 20-yard loss back to the Tiger 19. When asked what happened, Campbell said, "No comment."
At intermission each team had just three first downs and the Tigers had just 45 total yards of offense. UNC had 107 yards with 84 coming on the field goal drive.
The Tar Heels stretched the lead to 16-0 by moving 87 yards on five plays on their second possession of the third quarter. QB Ronald Curry, who converted a third down with a scramble to keep the drive alive, ran up the middle for 61 yards and a touchdown. The PAT attempt hit the upright as 8:25 remained in the game.
Auburn again failed to answer the challenge on the next series, going three and out as Campbell mishandled a shotgun snap on third down, leading to a sack.
North Carolina's first turnover was a different one that produced a long discussion with the officiating crew before awarding AU possession with a five-yard penalty for an illegal forward lateral. Dansby brilliantly tipped a pass to teammate Dontarrious Thomas on a pass he probably couldn't have intercepted without landing out of bounds. It looked like a basketball player making a save on a ball that was headed into the stands. Dansby, an All-State forward in basketball, agreed with that analogy.
The Tigers took over at their own 37 with 2:42 left to play in the third quarter. They moved the ball to the UNC 10 where Campbell was sacked on third and two. On fourth and nine, the Tigers got on the scoreboard with a 34-yard Duval field goal with 13:16 to play.
It took an injury to quarterback Campbell to shake up the offense enough to get the ball into the end zone. Unfortunately for AU, although Cobb moved the Tigers when he came in the game with 5:31 left after Campbell injured his shoulder on the previous series, Cobb's old bugaboo, the interception, ended a golden opportunity to cut the gap to 16-10.
After moving the Tigers from their own 26 to the UNC 19, Cobb was picked off with 3:12 to go. That looked to be the last gasp for the Tigers, but it wasn't.
Auburn got the ball back with 1:32 to play when the UNC punter dropped the football under a big rush from the Tigers. "The defense played hard to the last play," Alton Moore noted.
Cobb then passed for eight yards to Jeris McIntyre to the 12 and then hit tight end Lorenzo Diamond for a TD with 1:18 to play. "We never gave up," Diamond said. "That is something we can build on for next season."
AU had a chance to end the season on a win if it could get the onside kick, but after spending its timeouts on the previous defensive series, the Tar Heels were able to run out the clock after recovering the onside kick.
Neither team had impressive offensive statistics. Each side had 12 first downs. Auburn had just 31 net rushing yards while UNC had 174 with most of the damage down by scrambling QBs. Auburn passed for 145 yards while UNC managed 114.
Auburn converted only two of 13 third downs and UNC made 4-15. That helps explain why AU had just 176 total yards and UNC 288.
The highlight for the Tigers was the punting of Duval. He averaged 49.3 yards on nine punts. The Tiger defense had a good night rushing the passer with six sacks for 34 yards in losses.
For Auburn, offseason workouts begin when classes start in January as they start preparations for the 2002 season that opens on August 31 in Los Angeles vs. Southern Cal.
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