North Carolina secured its biggest upset win since 2004 and its second straight season of postseason eligibility with the following:
An interception, a fumble, a potentially illegal forward pass, a 90-yard return, a defensive touchdown and an official’s review.
Oh, and that all happened in one wacky, game-changing, season-defining play in the fourth quarter of UNC’s 33-24 win against No. 12 Miami.
“I guess if you coach a lifetime, you see just about everything,” UNC coach Butch Davis said.
In spite of a sizeable halftime lead, the Tar Heels (7-3, 3-3 in the ACC) led by just six early in the fourth quarter, and the Hurricanes (7-3, 4-3) were driving in UNC territory.
But then came The Play, a wild series of events that decided a roller coaster game — one that might define UNC’s erratic season.
Miami quarterback Jacory Harris dropped back and looked deep. But he was hit as he threw, and his pass hung in the air.
“Our front four did a great job of putting pressure on him,” said junior cornerback Kendric Burney. “And any time you get pressure on a quarterback, sometimes they get a tendency to throw it up.”
On this night, Harris had a tendency to throw it up. And Burney had a tendency to reel it in.
Burney had already grabbed two interceptions in the game, including one that he took back for a 77-yard momentum-swinging touchdown right before halftime.
In the fourth quarter, The Play followed a similar story line. Burney won the jump ball and once again started heading the other way. And as he did so, the excitement built on the UNC bench and in the stands.
“He’s just a dangerous, dangerous player when he gets the ball in his hands,” quarterback T.J. Yates said. “We might have to convince Coach (John) Shoop to put him on the offense.”
This time, Burney didn’t make it all the way. He ran out of gas at the Miami 45-yard-line. Not to worry, though — his roommate was there to help him out.
First, Burney bobbled the ball, but then he spotted senior Melvin Williams to his right. Williams had already given Burney a hard time about not sharing the ball on his last interception return.
This time, Burney obliged, even if he admittedly “fumbled” it forward by doing so.
“I don’t know what it was,” Williams said. “K.B. was just playing out there, and the next minute, I got a ball in my hands, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Davis had a perfect view of the exchange.
“(Kendric) got tired, pitched it to Melvin, and Kendric said Melvin’s eyes got real big when he caught it,” Davis said. “And Melvin said, ‘Oh, I better start running with it.’”
And that’s just what he did — all the way into the end zone. Williams compared it to a play he witnessed in person in January 2000, when the Tennessee Titans famously lateraled the ball across field in the “Music City Miracle.”
“Special,” Williams said of the play coming on his Senior Night. “Big-time special. Last go-around at this stadium, and I wanted to cry out there. I got me a touchdown.”
When The Play was confirmed by instant replay and the extra point sailed through the uprights, its consequences settled in.
The Tar Heels had claimed a 30-17 advantage and scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, securing a third straight win since UNC’s 30-27 loss to Florida State.
Burney had amassed 170 interception return yards, not only breaking the UNC and ACC single-game records, but also breaking North Carolina’s single-season record in a single night’s work.
“This is the biggest game of my life. I never had three picks in my life,” he said.
UNC had also wrapped up bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year — the first time it has done so since making seven straight bowl appearances from 1992-98.
So when the pair of roommates got back to the sideline, they received a hero’s welcome, right? Well, not so much.
“I slapped both of them,” Davis said.
“But thank God for the points.”
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