Once 0-3, the Heels finished the regular season at 7-5 and accepted an on-field invitation to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
"The team has a lot of character and a ‘never die' attitude and it shows," Ronald Curry said with a rare smile. We go out there and play for 60 minutes regardless of what the score is. That's what we've been doing all year whether we were winning or losing and good things just started to happen."
Curry threw for 116 yards and a touchdown in his final game Among the Pines. The Hampton, Va. native also ran for 42 yards on just six carries and spent much of the day eluding SMU's effective pass rush displaying his nifty escape ability. Willie Parker ran for 82 yards and a score as the Heels won for the seventh time in their last nine outings. But for Curry, the stats and numbers are just a small part of what was accomplished today.
"It was a great way to go out," Curry said. "The most important thing is to win and that cures everything else."
Leading 7-0, UNC was to begin the second half with the ball. However, Kevin Knight fumbled during his return and the Mustangs recovered it at Carolina's 12-yard-line.
Six seconds later SMU tailback ShanDerrick Charles dashed into the end zone to tie the game at seven.
"We knew we were in for a fight," senior defensive tackle Ryan Sims said. "They fought hard and were playing well. But we did what we had to do."
"SMU fought very hard for coach Mike Cavan," UNC head coach John Bunting said about the Mustangs' recently fired leader. "We knew they would do that coming in."
It appeared as if UNC was going to respond to SMU's score as Darian Durant moved the team to the Ponies' 35. But Durant threw into double coverage and was picked off by Shane O'Neill in the end zone.
However, the Heels got the ball right back after a quick stop and went to work again. After a pair of penalties Carolina faced a first and 24 on its own 38 when Durant completed a 15-yard pass Brandon Russell. Durant then scooted 14 yards for a first down to the SMU 33. Two plays later he hit Sam Aiken for a 26-yard gain giving UNC first and goal at the one. Although Carolina was unable to cross the goal line, senior Jeff Reed's 19-yard field goal gave them the lead (10-7) it wouldn't give up.
On their next possession the Tar Heels tried a little trickery.
Highlighting a 73-yard drive was a perfectly orchestrated "Fumble Rooskie." On first and ten at the SMU 27, Curry took the shotgun snap and placed the ball between the legs of Parker, who was slightly in front of him to his left. Curry then bolted to the right - as if it was a keeper - and Parker cruised around left end 23 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Mustangs' four. Two plays later Parker took an option-pitch from Curry and waltzed into the right side of the end zone. It was exactly the same play UNC successfully ran last season at Pittsburgh.
"I just had to wait for a second to my count and then picked up the ball and ran," Parker said of a rare bit of razzle-dazzle by the Heels. "I saw a lot of room and was like, ‘Oh man, I better get in the end zone.'"
However, Reed's streak of 66 made extra points ended as his attempt sailed wide of the goal posts, and UNC led 16-7 with 3:29 left in the third quarter.
"Our kids were able to hang in there and overcome a fumble that resulted in their touchdown early in the second half," said Bunting, who is the second coach (Carl Torbush) in school history to take his first team bowling. "We told our kids, ‘Stay the course.' We told our kids to stay tough, hang in there and play 60 minutes. We told them to play hard and fast and that's what they did, and as a staff we're very proud of them."
With the Heels ahead by just six, Reed tacked on a 32-yard field goal to essentially seal the game with 5:47 left to play. Moments later, the stadium speakers began to play "Georgia" by Ray Charles and to the delight of a happy contingent of UNC fans. Of course the players were elated as well.
"Words can't explain how happy I am right now," said Durant, who was 7-13 passing for 96 yards. "I'm just glad that I'm a part of this family."
"It's amazing," Sims said. "A lot of people counted us out but we kept believing in ourselves. Our coaches kept believing in us and we just wanted to go out and prove to everybody, especially our Carolina fans, that Carolina football is back."
The Tar Heels' opponent for the Atlanta bowl hasn't been determined but will be from the Southeastern Conference. Either Auburn, Mississippi or LSU are the likely candidates and UNC should know as soon as Monday. South Carolina is also a possibility. The Peach Bowl is Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.
UNC's last bowl appearance was a 20-13 victory over San Diego State in the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl.
The first half offered little excitement as the Heels ran just 23 plays - only 13 after their first possession. On the first play of their second series Curry connected with Chesley Borders for a 43-yard score to take a 7-0 lead with 4:27 left in the opening quarter.
However, from that point on, UNC went three-and-out on its next four possessions of the half.
SMU dominated the time of possession, keeping the ball for 19:56 to UNC's 10:04.
However, in the end all that mattered to anyone wearing Carolina Blue was that this team that appeared headed toward a dismal season with doubts arising about Bunting, turned things around and will spend New Year's in Atlanta.
"I'm proud for this program and for the University of North Carolina," Bunting said afterwards. "It's a great bowl game and I think there's no better team than the university of North Carolina and in its class and in its tradition to go down there and playing a big ball game on New Year's Eve. We're really excited about that and our players are. I've actually given them a couple of days off."
As well he should.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.