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December 30, 2010

Music City Madness

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee's players and staff had already run out on to the field.

The 60,000 or so Volunteers fans inside LP Stadium were rejoicing in full voice.

The referee even waved his arms and declared through the public-address system, "The game is over."

But it wasn't over.

It wasn't even close to over.

A video review determined that one second remained, time enough for a field goal by Casey Barth to send the game into overtime, where eventually, North Carolina earned a 30-27 win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

"I think ESPN Classic will probably be showing this 100 years from now," UNC coach Butch Davis said.

When Barth's final field goal of the night, a game-winning 23-yarder in the second overtime, flew through the uprights, the relatively small contingent of UNC fans burst into cheers only to be drowned out by the boos of disappointed Tennessee supporters.

Bottles flew toward the field from angry hands.

The Tar Heels (8-5) rushed toward where Barth stood and eventually surrounded him and hoisted him into the air.

"This was insane," Barth said. "It's probably the craziest game I've ever been in. With all that's happened to our team, it's probably the best thing that could have happened to us."

The stage for the kick that gave UNC its first bowl win since 2001 was set when UNC linebacker Quan Sturdivant intercepted Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray on the fourth play of the second overtime.

While he could have tried to return the pick for a touchdown to end the game, Sturdivant said he knew as soon as he caught it, he was going to take a knee and leave the Tar Heels' fate in Barth's hands.

"Casey's Mr. Automatic," Sturdivant said.

Barth's field goal as regulation time expired produced the only UNC points of the second half.

Tennessee (6-7) had taken the lead on a touchdown pass from Bray to Luke Stocker with 5:16 to go in the fourth quarter. But UNC blocked Daniel Lincoln's point-after attempt, keeping its deficit at three.

Even with that glimmer of hope, the Heels looked doomed to suffer a third-straight bowl loss when a fourth-down pass hit Dwight Jones in the chest and fell to the ground with 1:36 to play.

"When we came off the field that last time, a lot of guys didn't realize we'd have a chance," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said. "And I was one of them."

But Carolina got the ball back again, and Yates hit Todd Harrelson for a 28-yard gain plus a 15-yard spearing penalty with 26 seconds remaining.

After spiking the ball with 16 seconds left at the Tennessee 25, Yates handed off on second down to game MVP Shaun Draughn - who had a career-high 160 rushing yards, including a 58-yard touchdown on UNC's first possession - sparking the confusion of the final seconds.

While the plan was to spike the ball after Draughn's run and then kick, the field goal team ran onto the field after the play, so Yates just figured he would spike the ball and take the penalty for too many men on the field.

But the clock showed triple zeros and the Tennessee fans celebrated.

So after all this Carolina team had been through this season, being on the cusp of an improbable comeback only to have the referee announce to the entire stadium that the game was over flooded the Tar Heels' minds with a barrage of emotions.

Sturdivant said he was "pissed off."

Yates felt a cumulative devastation: "At that point, I thought we had lost three straight bowl games by one, two and three points."

Offensive lineman Mike Ingersoll stayed optimistic: "I wasn't that upset because I knew we spiked the ball in time. I said, 'It's not going to end like this.'"

Barth said he barely knew what to think, though he feared the worst initially.

"I thought we were done," Barth said. "But Coach was telling me, 'Keep kicking, we'll get you a shot.'"

No matter how many bottles flew or fans booed, Davis was right.

Barth got his chance and hit the 39-yarder to send the game into overtime. After the teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime period, Barth got his second big chance of the game and couldn't do anything but deliver.

It was the only perfect ending for this North Carolina team, which had suffered a season full of ups and downs, emotional swings and opportunities to show resilience.

"Once we had the second chance," Yates said, "I knew we were destined to win the game."


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