“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of kids and the way that they fought to get themselves back into a ball game,” UNC coach Butch Davis said.
Sure it’s coach speak, but for a guy who’s been a head coach since 1995, the pride he expressed in his players speaks volumes.
Zack Pianalto literally had the game in his hands. The senior tight end was the intended receiver on the final two plays of the game but couldn’t haul in the tying touchdown from six yards out. After the game, he said the loss was the toughest of his collegiate career.
“The way it ended is just heartbreaking,” Pianalto said. “We had a chance to win it, and I just didn’t come up with the play.”
Had Pianalto caught either pass, an ensuing extra point would have given UNC its biggest win in years. Even without the 13 ineligible players and injured reserves-turned-starters Mywan Jackson and Johnny White, the Tar Heels turned the final 2:32 into must-see TV.
After a 13-play drive culminated in a 14-yard Erik Highsmith touchdown, UNC had narrowed the LSU lead from 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter to six. UNC had two timeouts in the one-possession game but elected to try an onside kick in a no-brainer decision for Davis and his staff. The call paid off.
“We had to take every opportunity that we could to try and get the ball back,” Davis said. “If we didn’t get it we could go three-and-out, stop the clock and maybe still get the ball back. It was a little bit of a calculated risk but not really that difficult to make.”
Despite recovering the kick, UNC mustered only one first down before quarterback T.J. Yates’ fumble gave the Tigers the ball back. In a strange turn of events, LSU running back Stevan Ridley coughed up the ball on a run that would have ended UNC’s chances had he just fallen down.
Tre Boston’s forced fumble gave UNC new life and Yates an opportunity to show critics why he deserved to be in the game.
He found four different receivers and drove 67 yards, including three straight passes of 16 yards or more. In all, Yates totaled a career-high 412 passing yards with three touchdowns.
Down to the six-yard-line with only six seconds remaining, UNC had two shots at a touchdown. Offensive coordinator John Shoop used plays that sent five receivers into the end zone with the knowledge that, with no timeouts remaining, anything short of the goal line would end the game.
“In that situation I’m going to (No.) 17,” Yates said of Pianalto. “That’s not going to change after this game. He’s my go-to guy.””
Dejection would be an understatement for Pianalto’s emotions after the game. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder spoke softly, taking all the credit for UNC’s 0-1 record.
“He put it where only I could catch it, and unfortunately I just didn’t come up with either one,” he said.
Withstanding the loss of 13 players and a handful more due to injury, the LSU special teams play and a 20-point deficit, the Tar Heels were just one catch from one of the greatest wins in school history.
Instead, they’ll have to settle for one of the greatest games.
“We’ve got great players throughout the depth chart,” Yates said. “There was a little uncertainty with the guys who have never played before, but we kind of rallied around each other, looked to each other for help and kind of leaned on each other, especially in that fourth quarter.
“This is a game I’ll remember for a long time.”
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