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Casey Barth drilled a 23-yard field goal in the second overtime to secure UNC's eighth win of the season and its first bowl victory since 2001 in front of a rabid pro-Tennessee crowd on Thursday night.
The Tar Heels (8-5) forced overtime on a wild turn of events in the final seconds of regulation on Barth's 39-yarder, and then retook the lead with a one-yard plunge by T.J. Yates (23-of-39 passing, 234 yards, TD) in the first overtime period. The Volunteers (6-7) knotted the score at 27 when Tyler Bray (27-of-45 passing, 4 TD, 3 INT) found Luke Stocker in the back of the end zone from 20 yards out.
Tennessee grabbed its first lead of the second half when Bray connected with Justin Hunter for an eight-yard touchdown pass, but Donte Paige-Moss blocked Daniel Lincoln's extra point try to keep UNC within three points at 20-17 with 5:16 left in regulation, setting the stage for the hectic finishing fireworks.
Kickoff seemed like a distant memory by the time UNC accepted the bowl trophy in the north end zone.
It took North Carolina just three plays to grab its first lead of the game as Shaun Draughn burst through the left side of the Tennessee defense, shook cornerback Janzen Jackson out of his shoes and then scampered into the end zone for a career-long 58-yard touchdown run.
The Volunteers answered nearly nine minutes later when Bray found a wide open Gerald Jones for a 29-yard touchdown pass. Barth promptly added a 28-yard field goal, but Tennessee notched its first lead on a Bray-to-Da'Rick Rogers 45-yard touchdown connection with 1:30 remaining before halftime.
On the ensuing possession, Yates led the Tar Heels 72 yards on five plays for his first and only touchdown pass of the bowl game, finding Erik Highsmith for 39 yards on a scramble on 3rd-and-1 with 27 seconds left.
North Carolina outgained Tennessee, 385-to-339, while winning the turnover battle, 3-2.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Conclusion of Hysterical Proportions
When the Tar Heels trotted onto the field after the Volunteers had assumed control with 5:16 to play, it seemed as that familiar broken record of late-game struggles would plague the boys in blue once again in the Music City.
A 25-yard pass play to Draughn was called back for an illegal shift, Dwight Jones was hit with an illegal touching penalty, Yates was flagged for intentional grounding that set up a 2nd-and-27 and then Jones dropped a 21-yard pass on fourth down when 20 yards would have been good enough for a first down.
Tennessee played conservatively in rushing three straight times on its ensuing possession, punting the ball back to UNC with 31 seconds left in regulation. Yates quickly took advantage, gunning a pass to Todd Harrelson for 28 yards down the right sideline. The sophomore receiver held on despite a vicious spear to his helmet, setting up a UNC first down at the Tennessee 37-yard-line.
But after Yates had already snapped the ball, the officials blew the play dead and elected to review the play, forcing head coach Butch Davis to scream, "The ball was snapped," repeatedly to the game officials on the sidelines.
The call was upheld, setting up a bizarre play call with 16 seconds left as UNC choose to run the ball with no timeouts remaining. As the game clock wound down, the field goal unit started to make its way out onto the field before Yates had spiked the ball in trying to kill the clock as double zeros were displayed on the scoreboard. Lipski announced the game was over and players began shaking hands at midfield as the sideline official charged the head referee, shouting, "They're buzzing me, they're buzzing me."
The field was cleared, and after several minutes of deliberation, one second was put back on the clock and Barth sent the game into overtime as Volunteer fans hurled bottles and cups onto the playing surface and towards the UNC bench.
Utter insanity is the only apt description for what transpired in the final minutes at LP Field on Thursday evening.
"There were a lot of things out there that were confusing," Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker said. "There wasn't a lot of clarity."
For a bowl official that seemed to go out of his way in making his presence felt throughout the game, Lipski choked when clutch time arrived. But the right calls were eventually made, leaving the outrage to the Volunteers while the Tar Heels could only laugh about the unfathomable conclusion.
"I've been involved in coaching for 37 years and when you stand on the sidelines, you get an opportunity to see an awful lot of bizarre things happen in a coaching career," Davis said. "This is going to be one of those games that I think ESPN Classic will be showing 100 years from now."
The lofty expectations surrounding the North Carolina program as the '10 season approached was firmly based on an experienced collection of seniors that saturated the roster. And while their final seasons as Tar Heels may have followed an unimaginable path over the past six months, that group of players carried their teammates along the way and rose to the occasion yet again against the Volunteers.
Whether it was Yates delivering a perfectly Yates performance -- nothing flashy, but efficient – or Draughn filling the void at running back or Quan Sturdivant defining the playmaker tag yet again with an interception in the second overtime period, the senior class's fingerprints were all over this victory.
Even Deunta Williams, who suffered a horrific fibula fracture in the first half, motivated his teammates with his emotion and in what he's brought to the program since his arrival in Chapel Hill back in the summer of '06.
Yates spoke to reporters after the game with a Music City Bowl champions t-shirt pulled tight over his pads. Not an unexpected play, of course, considering that once T.J. Yates took his Carolina uniform off, it would be for the final time.
"I've thought about it a lot over the past couple of weeks," Yates said. "That's what makes this win that much more special – going out on a high note in such a crazy game. It's a great feeling,"
A Working Assembly Line
Gio Bernard was the first casualty for the '10 stable of running backs at North Carolina back in August. Ryan Houston joined the highly-touted freshman on the sidelines after being caught up in the NCAA investigation, and then Johnny White and Anthony Elzy were added to the list after bouts with injury and academics, respectively.
But Kenny Browning's position group has shown a knack for refilling the ranks like well water when the basin appeared dry. Thursday was no exception, as Draughn regained his starting position and set a career-high with 160 rushing yards, while adding a touchdown on 23 carries.
"Obviously, Shaun had a great night tonight," Davis said. "It was great to see him back healthy… We missed him all year long, but he sure came through tonight like a complete champion."