Wild bowl win caps wild year for Tar Heels

Published 4:26 pm Saturday, January 1, 2011

By By AARON BEARD, AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH — North Carolina started and ended the year in similar fashion: Players running in and out of the lineup in a game that came down to a frantic finish against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
The Tar Heels proved they were resilient enough to take a step forward in coach Butch Davis’ fourth season despite an ongoing NCAA investigation into the football program. Now they head into the offseason awaiting the results of the probe into agent-related benefits and academic misconduct.
‘‘We’re in a calmer state, but we’re anxious,’’ athletic director Dick Baddour said Friday, a day after the Tar Heels’ double-overtime win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. ‘‘We want resolution. We can’t really move on until we get resolution.’’
The Tar Heels (8-5) started the year by traveling to Atlanta to face LSU with a depleted roster due to the NCAA review, which began when investigators visited the Chapel Hill campus in July. Thirteen players missed the opener, though things were so fluid that two players were cleared to play at the last minute and had to scramble to catch a late flight and join the team the night before.
North Carolina nearly rallied from a 30-10 fourth-quarter deficit, driving all the way to the 6 in the final seconds before falling short on two passes into the end zone in the 30-24 loss.
The season ended with Thursday’s 30-27 win against the Volunteers in what amounted to a road game in an orange-filled stadium. It included a chaotic sequence at the end of regulation in which the Tar Heels — with no timeouts — had players sprinting on and off the field in confusion before trying to spike the ball to set up a tying field goal. The clock appeared to expire, though officials reviewed the play and put 1 second back on the clock that allowed North Carolina to force overtime and win.
‘‘Unbelievable for our team to finish the way it did after the stuff we’ve been through this year,’’ senior H-back Ryan Taylor said. ‘‘I don’t think it could have ended any better. It was perfect for us to end this crazy season in a double-overtime game.’’
With the win, the Tar Heels ended up with the same record as the previous two seasons. But the Tar Heels could claim progress because they won their first bowl game under Davis, not to mention they did it despite having 14 players miss at least one game and seven miss the entire season — including NFL first-round draft prospects Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn — due to the NCAA investigation.
That leads to obvious what-if questions about how much this group could have achieved with its complete lineup, though sophomore defensive end Donte Paige-Moss refused to look at it that way.
‘‘We’re sending a signal to everybody that we’re coming back,’’ he said. ‘‘This year wasn’t just going to be our one-and-done year that we’re supposed to do something big. We recruit and we get studs from everywhere, so I want everybody to know that we’re coming for you. This is just a sign for next year.’’
The Tar Heels are closing in on a recruiting class ranked in the top 10 nationally, though it’s possible some recruits might back out of verbal commitments if the NCAA issues significant sanctions in the offseason. Baddour said the program is ‘‘frustrated’’ with negative recruiting from competing schools that are using the NCAA investigation to dissuade recruits from signing with the Tar Heels in February.
But Baddour, Chancellor Holden Thorp and the school’s board of trustees have all been publicly supportive of Davis, saying that he will return for a fifth season.
For now, though, there’s little else the school can do other than savor that bowl win.
‘‘From the football standpoint, because of his bowl game and because of this victory, there’s tremendous positive feeling and energy,’’ Baddour said. ‘‘You just have to be around these players and this coaching staff to feel it.
‘‘I acknowledge if we get some bad news we could have a setback, but I really don’t think it’s going to set this program back. I firmly believe that. I believe the worst is behind us.’’
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.