By Cory Mccartney
September 05, 2010

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, Tommy and Gina's ballad never seemed quite so appropriate.

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 T.J. Yates' final two passes slipped through the fingers of tight end Zack Pianalto, as the Tigers escaped with a 30-24 win.

"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 Butch Davis said. "We didn't play this for any moral victories. We came here to win a game."

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 Marvin Austin posted pictures of lavish gifts while on a trip to Miami with, among others, Heels wide receiver Greg Little. Those tweets helped touch off an NCAA investigation into whether the players received improper benefits from agents, and the effects of that probe were felt across the southeast on opening weekend. Alabama's Marcell Dareus, the first player to be punished by the NCAA for attending the party, will miss the Tide's first two games and Georgia's A.J. Green and South Carolina's Weslye Saunders, both of whom have been implicated in the investigation, did not play.

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, Ryan Houston and Shaun Draughn, top receiver in Little, and seven members of their starting defense in Austin, ends Michael McAdoo and Robert Quinn, cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney and safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams.

"[The missing players] sent us a text message to let us know that they support us win or lose," said Quinton Coples, Austin's replacement at tackle. "We went out and played the best we could. We stood tall and tough."

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 Johnny White fumbled. On the next possession, a bad snap got away form Yates and the Tigers recovered it.

UNC had managed to take a 10-7 lead after answering Jordan Jefferson's 6-yard touchdown pass to Russell Shepard with a 9-yard TD run by Devon Ramsay -- followed by a 20-yard Casey Barth field goal. But the Tigers would seize a 30-10 halftime edge, rattling off 23 straight points, including an 87-yard punt-return TD by Patrick Peterson, who had 244 combined return yards in the first half.

The rout, it appeared, was on.

But the UNC defense, relying on Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, who had to wait until Friday to find out whether they would also be held out as the probes continue, and a cast full of first-time starters, looked every bit the part of the NFL talent-laden unit that led the Heels' preseason ranking.

"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 Jheraine Boyd to cut the Tigers' lead to 30-17. He then capped a 13-play, 67-yard drive with a 14-yard TD strike to Erik Highsmith, pulling the Heels within six.

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 Tyrann Mathieu. But the Heels would get another chance as Sturdivant picked up a Stevan Ridley fumble, giving UNC the ball with 1:08 to play.

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 Les Miles.

During the Tigers' first possession, Miles drew boos from the LSU faithful when he sent Josh Jasper out for a 44-yard field goal in the first quarter that went wide right. This was a game that Miles had to win, and while he did, the near-collapse will likely be a topic of conversation in Baton Rouge.

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 Tre Boston. The defense suffered too, especially when Peterson wasn't on the field -- most notably Yates' 97-yard TD pass and the two near-catches from Pianalto in the final seconds.

"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.

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