ATLANTA (AP) — With the NCAA lurking around Chapel Hill and some of its best players sitting in the stands, North Carolina found itself in a most improbable position.
The 6-yard line with a few seconds on the clock, a touchdown and an extra point away from actually winning the game.
T.J. Yates took one shot at the end zone, the ball slipping through the hands of Zack Pianalto. Then one last throw to the same guy. Same result.
No. 21 LSU held on for a 30-24 victory Saturday night, but the 18th-ranked Tar Heels almost pulled it out after going down by 20 at halftime. There may be no such thing as a moral victory, but this was about as close as you can get.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of kids,” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. “The way they fought to get themselves back into the ballgame. We didn’t play very well in first half. We made so many mistakes in kicking game, we really put ourselves in a hole. But one thing that defines your character and your guts is your ability to compete.”
Patrick Peterson had 257 yards — including an 87-yard touchdown — on kickoff and punt returns, leading LSU (1-0) to a 30-10 lead at the break. Not surprising, given the Tar Heels were missing 13 key players because of NCAA investigations over relationships with agents and possible academic violations.
But North Carolina made a game of it against all odds, scoring two second-half touchdowns, then getting two shots at the win after recovering an onside kick and a fumble. Yates threw for the last of his career-high 412 yards to reach the LSU 6, with enough time to get off a couple of passes.
He went to Pianalto at the back of the end zone. The throw was on the hands but a little behind the senior tight end, who couldn’t hold on with a defender bearing down on him.
Two seconds remained, time for one more snap. Yates rolled to his right and spotted Pianalto again, this time lurking right at the goal line. The throw was low — it had to be to avoid the coverage — and again it slipped through his hands.
Yates pleaded desperately for an interference call, but the officials simply trotted off the field. The quarterback then bent over and pounded the turf of the Georgia Dome in frustration.
He didn’t have anything to be ashamed of, that’s for sure. Neither did his team, which looked as though it was headed for a blowout.
“Everything happened so fast,” Yates said. “We were just reacting. The whole sequence was hectic.”
Pianalto said either of the last two passes was catchable.
“No, there was no interference,” he said. “I just dropped them.”
LSU appeared headed for an easy win after scoring 23 straight points over the final 8:06 of the first half. But the Tiger nearly let it slip away, which would have been a devastating blow to coach Les Miles and a program that’s trying to show it’s still a powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference.
Three years removed from a national championship, LSU has lost eight SEC games over the last two seasons and watched Florida and Alabama claim the dominant roles.
“We won a football game tonight in very sloppy fashion,” Miles said. “If we just play efficient football, this game is not even close. We’ve got to tie up some loose ends right now.”
Start with the secondary.
With LSU still firmly in control early in the fourth quarter and North Carolina backed up against its own goal line, Yates rolled to his right and heaved a pass out of the end zone that Jheranie Boyd took to the other end zone for a 97-yard touchdown — the longest play from scrimmage in North Carolina history. Yates then hooked up with Erik Highsmith on a 14-yard touchdown with 2½ minutes remaining.
North Carolina recovered a disputed onside kick, but LSU stopped that drive by forcing Yates to fumble as he tried to scramble. Trying to run out the clock, Stevan Ridley fumbled and the Tar Heels recovered, getting one more shot to pull it out.
They came up 6 yards short.
“We have a team of fighters,” Pianalto said. “We played hard the whole game. That last drive was tremendous.”
Missing so many players, the trickle down to the special teams left the Tar Heels especially vulnerable. Peterson, a junior cornerback, took advantage with four punt returns for 157 yards and three kickoff returns for 100 yards.
“He had great vision, great ball skills and great speed,” Miles said. “I don’t know the validity of making a guy a Heisman Trophy candidate. I would say he had the kind of night tonight on a national level that would put him in line for any national award, including the very highest.”
Davis said his team just didn’t have enough players to keep up with Peterson.
“All our depth was eaten up on special teams,” he said. “All the guys starting on defense used to be on special teams.”
Former quarterback Russell Shepard, now playing receiver to take advantage of his speed, hauled in a touchdown pass and broke off a 50-yard scoring run for LSU. And the current quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, finished off the first half with a 51-yard scoring pass to Rueben Randle.
North Carolina was missing most of the NFL prospects on its touted defense — at least six starters, including the entire secondary. The offense wasn’t at full strength, either, forced to improvise without leading receiver Greg Little and its top two tailbacks, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston.
But plenty of players stepped up for the Tar Heels, no one more than Yates. He completed 28 of 45 and had three touchdown passes. His favorite receiver was Boyd, who had six catches for 221 yards, making him only the fourth player in North Carolina history to have 200 receiving yards in a game.
Jefferson was 15 of 21 for 151 yards. Ridley rushed for 81 yards and Shepard had 67, while the LSU defense limited North Carolina to 24 yards on the ground.
“We were hitting on all cylinders in the first half,” Jefferson said. “In the second, we made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of penalties.”
And nearly wound up with a loss.
Paul Newberry / The Associated Press