ATLANTA — An NCAA investigation and a football game don't really have anything in common.
But they often looked like two sides of the same coin Saturday night, as a North Carolina team reeling from scandal was defeated, 30-24, by LSU on national television at the Georgia Dome.
It was hard to separate the scandal from the score Saturday, as they bled into each other constantly. LSU took full advantage of a Tar Heel defense missing a half-dozen starters, scoring on two touchdown "drives" of nine seconds each in a 23-point LSU second quarter.
The Tar Heels made it interesting early - they once actually led, 10-7, in the second quarter. Then North Carolina fell behind by 20 and tried - in unsuccessful but very entertaining fashion - to mount a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Ultimately, though, the game was much like the investigation in the way it felt to most of those who care deeply about the Tar Heels.
North Carolina was ranked No.18 entering the game. But that was before the team held 13 players (eight of them starters) out of Saturday night's game. The university is dealing with eligibility questions regarding a two-pronged investigation into sports agents and possible academic misconduct. The total damage from that probe has only begun to be calculated.
So these Tar Heels are not the team they were supposed to be, and that ranking was based on old information.
While there were several joyous, big-time moments for North Carolina - including passes of 97 and 75 yards from T.J. Yates to Jheranie Boyd, and a very good second half - the ultimate takeaway from this game for those in light blue has to be embarrassment when you look at the larger picture.
ABC began its telecast by putting up a depth chart for UNC's defense and then crossing out the names of players who weren't playing because they were among the 13 players the school held out.
Then UNC's offense began the actual game by losing a fumble on its second play from scrimmage. If that didn't drive the point home completely that along with everything else, Butch Davis's latest club isn't great at fundamentals, the Tar Heels lost another fumble on their fourth offensive play.
If that wasn't enough, UNC had all sorts of trouble with the center-quarterback exchange Saturday and alternated centers depending on which one had messed up most recently. No. 21 LSU got a gift safety when one shotgun snap to Yates sailed right through the Tar Heel end zone.
Ahead 30-10 at halftime, LSU didn't really need any of that to win this game. The Tigers had the two best players on the field in wide receiver Russell Shepard and cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The Tigers constantly started in Tar Heel territory due to turnovers or huge kick returns. Peterson set a school record - just in the first half - with a staggering 244 return yards, including an 87-yard punt return for a TD.
The Tar Heel fans still turned out in force - there were at least 30,000 of them in a Georgia Dome that wasn't sold out. They were in full throat early as North Carolina played decently and grabbed that brief three-point lead. They rose again as the Tar Heels got to 30-24 late and recovered an onside kick.
But the Tar Heel fans were quiet once again as their last chance was fumbled away and the game ended, perhaps realizing that there's another parallel between this unpleasant season and the fallout from the investigation: Neither is anywhere close to being over.
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