ATLANTA -- Between Russell Shepard at wide receiver and Patrick Peterson as a return specialist, LSU flashed an evident strength: playmakers that could put points up in a hurry.
In a span of less than six minutes in the second quarter the Tigers turned the score from a deficit into a borderline blowout, rolling off 23 points as Shepard and Peterson ran wild.
At the time it seemed the first half production was just a sign of more to come, but no additional points ever arrived. From the 2:23 mark until the end of the evening, the LSU offense sputtered.
It was also a tale of two halves for the UNC offense.
After scoring 10 points on 150 yards of total offense through the opening two quarters, quarterback T.J. Yates – without his top two running backs and top receiver due to suspension – turned the back half of the contest into an air raid.
While his line - 11-of-19 for 138 yards and a touchdown – was respectable at intermission, Yates finished the night 28-of-46 for 412 yards and three touchdowns. With no interceptions, Yates walked away with a passing efficiency rating of 157.63 – among the best lines from a quarterback during college football’s opening weekend.
Regardless of his career night, Yates – a native of Marietta, Ga. who called the trip to Atlanta a homecoming of sorts – walked off the Georgia Dome field upset most about two of his 18 incompletions.
With the ball six yards from six points, Yates and the Tar Heel offense had a pair of shots at the game-tying score during the final seconds. Both times Yates went to tight end Zach Pianalto, yet neither time could the senior - who led the way with a team-high eight catches – make the catch to give UNC an extra point opportunity to steal the victory.
Safety Jai Eugene was in on the first stop, while linebacker Stefoin Francois kept enough cover on Pianalto to force the incompletion on the game’s final snap.
“If I make that play, we win the game,” Pianalto said. “I'm such a competitive person and I feel I could have won it for us, and I didn't.”
Back in Baton Rouge, Pianalto isn’t the story of the evening.
After preseason talks of improvement made across the board, LSU head coach Les Miles called a spade a spade.
“Our football team won a game in a very sloppy fashion,” Miles said. “We had the opportunity to win in a very convincing style and our football team wasn’t good enough to do that.”
Outside of big plays that gave LSU points early, the Tigers didn’t flash much that would lend future opponents to believe lessons had been learned and progress made from the team’s 2009 campaign.
While Miles tabbed as many as five running backs as candidates for touches, the bulk went to starter Stevan Ridley, who finished the night with 81 yards on 19 carries. He never scored, and he also coughed the ball up twice – the final time coming after he had picked up the first down that would have sealed the win with 1:08 to play.
“I didn’t play perfect, and I’ll be the first to admit it,” Ridley said. “I’ll just have to learn from this and keep going.”
Despite carrying it only twice, senior running back Richard Murphy also put the ball onto the turf. Jordan Jefferson’s misstep came on an interception just before the half.
Before it soured, the night opened on a positive for the Bayou Bengals.
UNC fumbled the ball twice out of the gates, and while Josh Jasper missed a field goal after the offense stalled in their opening possession it was Russell Shepard – now a wide receiver full time – that grabbed the team’s first points on a six-yard touchdown strike from Jefferson after the Tar Heels turned the ball over for the second time.
Just minutes into the second quarter Yates answered, leading the offense on a 13-play, 82-yard drive that finished with fullback Devon Ramsay rumbling into the endzone after reeling in a short pass.
Tied at 7-7, the Tar Heels got the ball back at the 9:53 mark and put points up once more – though the damage done should have been plus-four given that Ramsey, who had one score already, dropped an open pass in the endzone. Head coach Butch Davis settled for the points on a 20-yard field goal by kicker Casey Barth.
Across the next six minutes, fans dressed in purple and gold were searching for a seatbelt.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson – making his debut as a return specialist – brought the kickoff back to midfield. One play later, Russell Shepard took a handoff off left tackle and sprinted 50 yards for his second touchdown of the night.
UNC started the following drive at their own four-yard line, and by third down Yates was forced to take a safety on a bad snap that rolled into the endzone.
Just as quick as Shepard and Peterson was the rise of LSU’s point total - now at 16 and not done rising.
Forced to punt with four minutes in the half, Peterson struck again, this time sprinting 87 yards for LSU’s first special teams touchdown of the season.
After the Tiger defense forced a three-and-out, UNC punted to Peterson once more.
Once again, Peterson answered with a return that brought the ball to midfield.
It took only one play for the Tigers to capitalize, seeing Jefferson connect with sophomore receiver Rueben Randle on a 51-yard deep strike for the score.
With a 30-10 lead and a Mardi Gras-like environment brewing among the faithful in the stands, the seas looked smooth for LSU.
By the second half, the waters turned too choppy to navigate.
Yates ripped the inexperienced Tiger defense apart for 274 yards and two touchdowns, an effort that included the longest play in school history - a 97-yard scoring strike to Jheranie Boyd with 10:48 to play in the game. Boyd finished the night with six catches for 221 yards.
After a quick three-and-out from LSU, Yates got UNC got back onto the board with a 13-play, 67-yard drive that capped with a 14-yard touchdown catch by Erik Highsmith.
Despite having been on the field for most of the half, the LSU defense wasn’t done yet.
Reminiscent of the Ole Miss game last fall, the Tigers fell victim to a recovery on a late-game onside kick.
On a night where UNC both turned the ball over three times and faced a 20-point deficit, Yates had his team driving with a chance for the win.
Yet when true freshman Tyrann Mathieu came off the weakside on a fourth-down blitz, it appeared that LSU and defensive coordinator John Chavis had come up with their biggest play of the evening. Mathieu had forced the fumble that – for all intents and purposes – ended UNC’s chances for good.
Then came Ridley’s final fumble, as well as the game’s final drive.
When the Tar Heels didn’t get into the endzone, middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard breathed a sigh of relief.
Other than marking down a loss in their season opener, the Tigers avoided the same fate that became their demise last season.
“I told the defense that we can’t let what happened last year happen this year,” Sheppard said. “We were leading every game going into the fourth quarter except for one. If we would have carried out all those games as a defense, who knows … we might have been in Pasadena.”
While the scoreboard read victory, the vibe outside the locker room after the game was one of defeat.
In short, LSU might have escaped Atlanta, but there’s a looming feeling that Sheppard’s words of motivation won’t be his final rallying call of the season.