ATLANTA -- The members of the North Carolina marching band sang along as they blared out a brassy rendition of Bon Jovi's "Living On A Prayer." Right then,
A summer of controversy leading to a two-pronged NCAA investigation had crippled the Tar Heels roster. No. 18 UNC was missing 13 players who were either ruled ineligible or being held out due to ongoing probes as it opened with No. 21 LSU. Hope, depending on your attachment to Carolina blue, was lost or all they had.
In a matter of 1:31, the Tar Heels had found, lost and found hope again, whittling a 20-point deficit down to six before
"I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a group of kids or how they fought to get back into a game," Tar Heels coach
But given all that UNC had been through in recent days, weeks and months, the consensus was the Tar Heels' biggest challenge appeared not in winning, but actually giving the Tigers a game.
It all started with a tweet, or more to the point, a series of tweets. All-ACC defensive tackle
But nowhere did it hit harder than North Carolina. The NCAA's initial investigation prompted another, as it discovered players were involved in possible academic infractions, rumored to include Davis' nanny rewriting papers for players.
Six players were deemed ineligible and another seven were held out while investigations continue. None made the trip to Atlanta. In all, the Tar Heels were without their leading rushers,
"[The missing players] sent us a text message to let us know that they support us win or lose," said
Early though, the Heels seemed as though the off-field distractions had taken a toll. On their first series, Yates hit a receiver in the back and third-string running back
UNC had managed to take a 10-7 lead after answering
The rout, it appeared, was on.
But the UNC defense, relying on
"Our young guys were stepping up," said Sturdivant, who finished with eight tackles and recovered the fumble that set up the Heels' final drive. "It just proves we've got more depth."
Plenty of Tar Heels stepped up, but arguably none more thanYates. The senior, who threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns last season (14), launched a 97-yard TD pass to
On the ensuing kickoff, UNC recovered Barth's on-side attempt with 2:32 to play, but the drive fell apart as Yates was sacked by
Yates drove the Heels 66 yards before failing to connect with Pianalto on the two final attempts. He finished with a career-high 412 yards on 28 of 46 passing, finding Boyd six times for 221 yards.
"[Yates] is a strong kid, in his heart and his mind," Davis said. "He got sacked, but he showed a lot of poise and a lot of character."
As much as the Tar Heels answered any questions as to whether they can compete without their defensive stars, who will remain sidelined for an undisclosed period, this game has only posed more questions for LSU.
A rout would have been looked at through purple-and-gold-colored lenses, despite the missing pieces on the Heels' roster. But nearly giving away a 20-point lead isn't likely to lessen the growing heat on coach
During the Tigers' first possession, Miles drew boos from the LSU faithful when he sent
The Tigers offense, ranked 112th nationally last season, looked dominant at times behind Jefferson (157 passing yards, 2 TDs); but he still managed to deliver one head-scratching play -- turning a throwaway pass, while scrambling, into an interception by UNC's
"We didn't execute in a lot of areas," Shepard said. "There were a lot of times we didn't come through. ... It's sickening to think of some of the mistakes we made."
It's a sure thing that UNC, so close to delivering an improbable victory after its summer of discontent, would second that sentiment.