Heels Fumble Away Opener, 27-21

CHAPEL HILL -- As the 2002 football season opened, North Carolina couldn't overcome a monsoon from the heavens or a monsoon of turnovers. And it couldn't overcome C.J. Stephens' meager 1:39 of action.

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The benevolent Tar Heels turned the ball over an Atlantic Coast Conference record tying nine times, and Miami (OH) held off a late UNC charge for a 27-21 victory before a rain-soaked crowd of 38,000 at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Yet despite amazingly erratic play, the Heels had a chance to pull this one out.

Trailing 27-14 with 1:39 left, Stephens - ever so patient - entered the game for the first time. He scampered for 13-yards on his first snap as a Tar Heel. Over his next five snaps, he completed a pair of passes for 14 and 15 yards respectively before hooking up with Sam Aiken for a 37-yard touchdown. Dan Orner's PAT cut Miami's margin to six with 39 seconds left.

"I just came in and did what I know I can," said Stephens, a transfer from Florida. "We had some openings and I just put the ball there. It felt good to help the team out, but it wasn't enough."

Carolina gave the few thousand fans that opted to stick around more reason to cheer as Michael Waddell recovered an onside kick at the RedHawks' 47-yard-line.

Somehow, UNC still had a chance.

"We practice that a lot," Waddell said. "We execute it in practice a lot, and we felt we could come down with it."

A completion and two incompletes later - one intentional to stop the clock - Stephens laid out a beautiful pass to Brandon Russell on fourth down with 18 seconds left and no timeouts remaining for the home team. But Miami was called for pass interference, giving UNC a first down, and one last bit of hope.

Stephens' final pass on the final play fell incomplete, and for the second time in the last five season-openers, UNC fell at home to the Mid-American Conference club.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that," UNC head coach John Bunting said about the turnovers and his team's perseverance. "It's amazing the game was so close and we had a chance to win at the end. It's a tribute to the way our players think and our coaches and our training staffs."

Miami defeated UNC 13-10 in the 1998 season-opener at Kenan, which was also Carl Torbush's first regular season game as head coach.

The exciting final minutes never would have been an issue had the Tar Heels not treated the RedHawks like spoiled rich kids on Christmas morning.

With rain pouring from the open sky, Durant, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 279 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions to go with his role in four fumbles, was picked off on UNC's first possession. The RedHawks, however, were unable to capitalize, a common theme for most of the afternoon.

After Miami scored on its second possession - a 1-yard plunge by Luke Clemens - UNC responded with an impressive 10-play, 68-yard scoring drive, capped by gutsy a 3-yard run by Jacque Lewis.

On its next possession, UNC began one of the most atrocious streaks in school history, as the RedHawks recovered fumbles on Carolina's next five possessions.

"I just don't think we stayed with it," said UNC coach John Bunting. "It's unfortunate and it really hurts."

Durant fumbled a snap from center Jason Brown, which led to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Michael Larkin for Miami and a 13-7 Miami lead.

Durant and Brown botched a snap again on the next possession, followed by an Andre Williams fumbles on a series in which UNC marched from its own 20 to Miami's 13 before losing the ball. Moments later, Willie Parker fumbled to give Miami the ball at Carolina's 19-yard-line. After Miami failed to score, Durant fumbled once again, this time appearing as if he was trying to shovel the ball to a teammate.

"It was just a bad connection," Brown said of the botched snaps to Durant. "Durant maybe said a couple of thing that I misinterpreted as something else, and that's how it worked out."

Even with the turnovers, UNC still moved the ball with regularity, chewing up 447 yards for the game.

"They couldn't stop us," Durant said. "We moved the ball up and down the field all day long. It just was unfortunate that we had a couple of mishaps that cost us the game."

Incredibly, the RedHawks managed just six points off of UNC's sloppiness in the first half, which ended with the Heels trailing 13-7.

A Tar Heel defensive stand, which included stopping the RedHawks on five straight snaps from the 1-yard-line, followed, energizing the frustrated crowd after the youthful Heels had allowed the RedHawks to move from its own 16 to UNC's goal line.

"That was incredible," said junior defensive end Will Chapman. "We had a lot of guys out there that don't play a lot on defense. They came together and played hard, and that was incredible."

But three plays later, Durant, called on to drop into the pocket twice despite the ball being at the one, was intercepted at the 19.

"I tried to throw the ball away, but it got caught up in the air," Durant explained. "The wind held it up."

Four plays later, Miami stuck it into the end zone on a 2-yard run by Cal Murray, and the RedHawks led 20-7.

"That was very tough," safety Dexter Reid said. "We obviously didn't quit, but that was tough, very difficult. It sure challenged us mentally."

A 9-yard touchdown pass from Durant to Kentucky-transfer Bobby Blizzard cut the deficit to 20-14, but Miami responded quickly with a 15-yard scamper by Clemens to go up 27-14 with 8:13 left in the game.

Yet just as cats have nine lives, ultimately, so to did the Tar Heels. The ninth gift - a fumbled pooch kickoff by Madison Hedgecock - proved to cost UNC nearly two minutes. Considering what Stephens did, that could have likely proven to be the difference in the game.

UNC's ACC record equaled Wake Forest's nine turnovers in a 1956 game against Duke.

Durant's miserable day coupled with the boost Stephens gave the team clearly made an impression on Bunting.

"We'll take a long look at Darian's performance," the coach said. "And he's certainly a guy we have high expectations of, just as we do with C.J. I'm sure he's very disappointed with some of the decisions he made."

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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