DeCock

DeCock: Bizarre ending for Heels' unusual season

Staff WriterDecember 31, 2010 

— The game was over. Then it wasn't. Then there was more. The Music City Bowl just couldn't stop playing encores.

You couldn't ask for a more fitting end to an unpredictable North Carolina football season. The game that wouldn't end just kept on going until the Tar Heels finally won, in a second overtime, 30-27 on a Casey Barth field goal after a Quan Sturdivant interception and Butch Davis and Derek Dooley shook hands ... for the second time.

"I don't see how else our season could have ended," North Carolina offensive lineman Mike Ingersoll said. "We had big wins and tough losses, but we hung in there in spite of everything."

This bowl will go down as one of the most bizarre in ACC history, if not the history of the entire bowl system - an instant classic not for its purity of play but its utterly unexplainable, unpredictable, unfathomable conclusion.

North Carolina missed a chance to tie the score in the final two minutes when Dwight Jones dropped a 21-yard pass on fourth-and-20.

Game over, right? Nope.

The whole concept of the game not being over hadn't even been pushed to its limit yet.

"A lot of guys didn't realize we'd get another chance," North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates said. "Myself included."

The Tar Heels forced a punt and got the ball back with 31 seconds to go and no timeouts. They got to the Tennessee 25-yard line, then chose to run the ball with 16 seconds to go instead of trying a pass or letting Barth try a 42-yarder. Surely, that odd decision would cost the Tar Heels? Not quite.

As the clock ticked down, confusion ensued. Yates tried to spike the ball while the field-goal unit panicked and ran onto the field, time ran out and referee Dennis Lipski declared the game over. Apparently.

"I had a sick feeling when the clock hit zero," Dooley said. "I did not celebrate."

A video review put 1 second back on the clock, the penalty was assessed and Barth made a 39-yarder to tie the score at 20 while Tennessee fans chucked bottles onto the field and North Carolina's Donte Paige-Moss had to be restrained from charging into the stands.

It was a farcical series of events that featured bizarre play-calling, oddball officiating, and multiple unpenalized salutes from the Volunteers - coming on a day a salute might have cost a team a bowl win elsewhere - endless explanations from the excruciatingly verbose Lipski - who may be among the best the Big Ten has to offer, but came off as a total buffoon Thursday - and one extremely angry orange-clad crowd.

During the first overtime, bowl employees were handing out "final" statistics in the press box. And the whole baffling conclusion could have been averted if Tennessee hadn't banged an extra point into the line after taking the lead in the fourth quarter. Go figure.

"Just when you think you've seen it all," Dooley said, "you haven't."

Really, it was the only appropriate way to end a bizarre season of North Carolina football, one that crossed every boundary of rules, resilience and, in the final act, ridiculousness.

The Tar Heels couldn't make it through bowl week without losing a starter - the last-minute academic suspension given to Anthony Elzy - and lost Deunta Williams in the first quarter to a gruesome broken leg. Suspensions and injuries: two factors that had far more impact on North Carolina's season than anyone could have expected.

It was a strange, strange season in Chapel Hill. It couldn't possibly have come to a stranger end.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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