Nov. 1, 2004
by Lee Pace, Extra Points
Chapel Hill was still in its Halloween slumber early Sunday morning, students and citizens waking to a bright sun and that nagging question from the deep recesses of their brains: Did I just dream the Tar Heels beat the big, bad, bold, brazen and third-ranked Miami Hurricanes last night? Did Connor Barth really nail a 42-yard field goal at the gun for a 31-28 victory? Or were Saturday's proceedings under a near-full moon simply, as Charles Dickens once proffered, "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato?"
A half-dozen construction workers were busy out front of the Kenan Football Center about the time the Bell Tower tolled nine, laying the foundation that would in a few days hold a new eight-foot, six-inch statue of Charlie Justice (and don't you know old No. 22 was rollicking from on high this weekend?). Inside the antique stadium, clean-up crews swept and bagged discarded peanut shells, hotdog wrappers and popcorn kernels. The tears from the evening before had dried by now. A maintenance worker mowed the turf; another game would roll around in six more days.
All was quiet inside the building. One man was already at work. In the offensive staff room on the fourth floor, Gary Tranquill had just completed his dissection of every snap from the night before. He and his offensive staff mates had concocted a brilliant plan of attack against a fast and hard-pursuing Miami defense -- some veer, some option from the shotgun formation, end-arounds, deep shots, crossing routes and even the vaunted "rooskie" slight-of-hand novelty. They had done so with limited ammunition at the tailback position (Ronnie McGill out, Jacque Lewis dressed but essentially a bystander). And what they taught, their charges executed with precision, confidence and toughness.
Tranquill looks up from his notes.
"When your quarterback plays well and you run the ball well, you always have a chance," he says.
"We had a 13-minute time-of-possession advantage and 30 first downs.
"We had one turnover, just before the half, that didn't mean anything. Other than that, no turnovers.
"We had three offensive penalties. That's not bad.
"You put all those things together and you've got a chance."
On a laptop computer, Tranquill can scroll through a menu listing every snap of the game, click it, and the play will immediately appear on the widescreen that stretches across one wall in the room. He cues up the first play of the game, a 16-yard run by Chad Scott.
"I was worried about our ability to run the ball," he says. "But Chad really played well. I didn't know if he could hold up for 25 carries. But he was tough, I give him credit. I was worried when he left the game in the third quarter."
He moves to Mike Mason's 35-yard TD catch just four snaps later.
"That's a stutter route," he says as Mason charges up field, stutters to draw the defender toward him, then jukes back downfield and out-jumps Antrel Rolle for the score. "Great block by Chad on the linebacker. Great catch by Mason."
Tranquill works his way through 545 yards of total offense toward the end of the game, to the Tar Heels' final drive commencing at 2:25 from their 10 yard-line. They need to get into field-goal range for Barth to break a 28-28 tie.
"We were going to be conservative getting off the goal and then go with the two-minute offense," he says. "We had plenty of time -- three timeouts and we'd like to get to the 25, but we could still have a shot at the 35. Barth's been good from 50-plus."
Scott rushes for four.
Durant complete to Scott for 12 on a swing pass to the left.
"Nothing's open so he dumps it to Chad. Good gain on a nothing play," Tranquill says.
Durant keeps for four.
"We've got crossing routes downfield, but Durant doesn't see anything he likes," Tranquill says. "So he pulls it in and runs. Good decision."
Durant complete to Jarwarski Pollock on the left sideline for 14.
"Wheel route to Pollock," Tranquill narrates. "The safety's playing him over the top, but he gets rubbed off a little. Great throw, great catch. Big play."
Durant over the middle to tight end Jon Hamlett for 22.
"Big, big play," he says. "We call this one `Chicago.' They blitz their two outside linebackers and drop their ends into coverage. The end on the left is supposed to get the tight end. He misses him. Hamlett's route is straight down the field, and he's wide open."
There's just under one minute left, Carolina has motored to the Miami 34.
"I figure we're just about close enough now," he says. "Maybe a few more yards, take care of the ball, milk the clock. You don't want to give them any time after you score."
All this while, Barth has been loosening up on the Tar Heel bench, kicking balls into a net. Nearby, center Greg Warren is whipping off a few snaps. Barth has banished the memory of a 39-yard kick he pulled left back in the first quarter.
"I rushed that one," he said later. "It was just a mental mistake."
Assorted players patted his helmet, offered a word of encouragement.
"I was just trying to stay focused and stay loose," Barth said.
Punter David Wooldridge stood near Barth, trying to create a cocoon of quiet for a fellow kicker.
"I knew from times like that in high school, I didn't like people coming up and talking to me," he said. "I was just trying to give him some space. I had full faith in Connor. I thought, `No need to worry, this is a chip shot.'"
Carolina gained nine more yards on three snaps, ran the clock down to four seconds and sent Barth onto the field. Miami attempted to ice him with a timeout of its own. I went from the Carolina sideline to the end zone to watch from underneath the goalposts. Standing there already was Clint Gwaltney, the Tar Heel placekicker from 1988-91 who's now on the administrative staff of Carolina's athletic department.
Gwaltney looked at the interlocking "NC" logo made of stone embedded in a turf background some 15 yards behind the goalposts.
"If the snap's good and the hold's good, he'll nail the middle of the `NC,'" Gwaltney said.
So it came down to this: 116 years of Tar Heel football and never a victory over a top-five ranked team; a team and coaching staff banished to the grave by assorted media and fans after losses to Louisville and Utah; a national TV audience warming to the story-of-the-day in college football; and a program stunned by close losses over two-plus seasons to Syracuse, Arizona State, Clemson, Virginia and others.
And it's all on the right foot of the mop-haired freshman from Wilmington.
The snap and spot were good, the connection solid. The ball started dead down the center of the uprights. There was no question it would be good. The ball hooked to the left as it flew, but it still cleared the left upright with room to spare. It landed just to the left of the "NC" logo.
Tar Heel fans stormed the field, just as they'd done three weeks earlier after a last-second win over N.C. State. This time, both sets of goal posts came down lickety-split. In case anyone's looking, the Tar Heels are 3-2 in the ACC (one-half game out of first place), and 4-4 overall.
"I've never had a game-winner in my life," Barth said. "It's the best feeling in the world."
"Thank you, Jesus," center Jason Brown said.
"I was trying to yell, but nothing would come out," said Jesse Holley.
"The best men won," Miami's Rolle said.
As the game evolved, I couldn't help but look into the raucous crowd and watch as the Tar Heel defense flex some muscle and think how much fun football can be at Carolina. Success has been so fleeting over two-plus years that you forget what it's like for the defense to leave the field after three downs, to have the fans erupt over a third-down stop, to see a little swagger on the homeside bench area. After Miami scored to take a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter, I confess to worrying about a second-quarter dismemberment similar to the one at Utah. The Tar Heel offense went three-and-out and Wooldridge followed with a shanked punt to give Miami the ball at the Carolina 42. But the Carolina defense responded with a three-and-out series itself and the offense set off on an 11-play scoring drive.
"That three-and-out was a big confidence booster," defensive co-coordinator Marvin Sanders said. "We got a short field, and our kids wanted to be back out there. You could sense the change in attitude. We made three good plays and got off the field. Then you could see the look in their eyes. That's the sign of a defense growing up."
One of the defensive heroes was junior Doug Justice, who started and played the entire game at middle linebacker in the absense of Fred Sparkman and with Larry Edwards' unfamiliarity with the "Mike" position. Justice might lack the foot speed of others, but he makes up for it with intelligence and heart. He's not going to run down a tailback on the flank, but he's always in the right spot and has taken over for Jacque Lewis as the personal protector and leader of the punt team.
"He has perservered," Sanders says. "I'm proud of that young man."
"He had his best game since he's been here," John Bunting added.
Biggest win ever for the Tar Heels? Biggest ever in Kenan Stadium? Gets my vote.
Bigger than Texas in 1948 ....
Bigger than Notre Dame in 1960 ....
Bigger than Tennessee in 1961 ....
Bigger than Florida in 1968 ....
Bigger than Virginia in 1992 and 1995 ....
Bigger than Florida State in 2001 ....
Bigger than any of the homestanding wins over Duke and N.C. State ....
This win was a last-second victory over a Top 5 team on national television. What an advertisement for Carolina football, and you can be sure there were some 17-year-old guests from high schools near and far wearing big smiles and dripping in the emotion of it all in the game's aftermath. Bunting made certain to shake a few of those hands making his way from the field to the dressing room.
"I am very honored as a head coach to be out there with those kids," Bunting said. "I was proud of the way those kids battled and hung in there. They never quit believing in themselves."
Me, I was just glad the ringing in my ears had gone away by Sunday morning. I couldn't hear a lick well into the wee hours Sunday after all the noise generated by Tar Heel football.
Send your questions about Tar Heel football to Lee Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org . Please include your first and last names and hometown. His Q&A column will appear each Friday during the season.