College football 2010. Yesterday was perhaps the most unusual bowl day in college history. The Salute in the Pinstripe Bowl, the first bowl game played in New York in 48 years, ended Kansas State's chance to force a tie against Syracuse in what was a home game for that team by a Big Ten officiating crew.
At the end of the day, The Upset, perhaps the biggest in college football this year, saw the Washington Huskies beat the Big 12/Big Ten Nebraska Cornhuskers by dominating them from start to finish in the Holiday Bowl. Sandwiched in between, in a game full of surprises and mistakes, was The Comeback.
In a season filled with incredible downs, missing more than thirty players for one or more games due to injury, suspension or dismissal including most of the defensive stars from one of the best in the country, the North Carolina Tar Heels beat the Tennessee Volunteers in the Music City Bowl in double overtime before a Tennessee home crowd.
The Music Bowl saw to it that the Tennessee Volunteers had a home game. Played in Nashville, with the Volunteers bowl eligible only because of four straight wins after a 2-6 start because of their freshman quarterback's outstanding play, the University of Tennessee figured to draw a crowd.
And when the North Carolina Tar Heels were forced to return many of their tickets and the bowl had a record crowd of almost 70,000, you knew without looking at the sea of orange that this was a Tennessee home game.
The Tar Heels brought their 4-1 away record to the Music City Bowl, together with their already proven grit over a season of distractions and angst.
Stars had placed themselves in harm's way during visits and receiving other gifts with and from people attached to agents or the agents themselves. A coach with the team had left because he was too close with an agent. And some of the brightest stars ever to grace any North Carolina Tar Heel program were kept out of all of the games this season, with a few never to return.
Yet, the Tar Heels almost won their first game of the season. T.J. Yates was the reason. In the absence of two dropped balls in the end zone, the Tar Heels would have beaten LSU at the end of that game.
Only two of their losses, to Virginia Tech and Miami, were lopsided. And their only losses were to ACC teams, something that begins to make sense when one looks at the ACC's postseason record this year. Three and one with the potential to run the table the rest of the way, making this one of the best ACC bowl seasons ever.
The end of the game would never have come if it had not been for T.J. Yates heroics in the first half. The Tar Heels had given up the go-ahead touchdown to Tennessee with less than two minutes to go. Yet, as he has all year, Yates brought North Carolina back with a long scoring toss just a minute and three seconds later, making the halftime score 17-14.
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So, after dominating the game on the scoreboard for most of the game and all of the second half, the Tar Heels gave up the go-ahead score to the Volunteers with just over five minutes to go in the game. It should have never been that close.
Penalty after penalty and dropped passes made North Carolina give up first downs and scores. In what appeared to be the last desperation pass on fourth down, normally outstanding receiver Dwight Jones dropped a TJ Yates pass that hit him in the hands and bounced off his chest.
The pass would have given the Tar Heels an unbelievable twenty yard first down required because TJ Yates was called for grounding when trying to move the Tar Heels into Tennessee territory from around the 50 yard line.
After calling two timeouts and forcing the Volunteers to punt, TJ Yates came back on the field with thirty-one seconds left. Then came The Spike and The Kick. With time expiring and so many players on the field that there was utter chaos, Yates spiked the ball with time expiring.
Game over? Not according to the Big Ten officials (remember them with The Salute) who, after review, put one second back on the clock. And Casey Barth, brother of the former outstanding kicker who seems to have inherited the same kicking genes, calmly kicked the tying field goal with time expired.
After the officials started the overtime, it seemed that Tennessee, which had been celebrating with all of its fans filling the stadium, would collapse. They did not. Freshman Tyler Bray scored after North Carolina scored the first touchdown of the first overtime, putting Tennessee back on the field for the second overtime.
Bray then gave up his third interception of the game to Quan Sturdivant, one of the suspended players this year. And Barth calmly kicked yet another field goal to win.
According to UNC head coach Butch Davis (who coached in the NFL for six seasons) after the game, college football has no rule like the NFL, which would have denied an NFL team the extra second due to the penalty. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley seemed to agree. He alone was not celebrating victory, knowing that his team might have to take to the field again. They were both right, as far as the officials were concerned.
So ends what has to be one of the greatest seasons in college football history. A head coach and quarterback refusing to succumb to what everyone believed would be a lost season.
Quarterback TJ Yates was so maligned during last season that he was the odds-on favorite to be replaced with the starting quarterback role up for grabs before the first game against LSU.
Yet he persevered, just as he had done in his transition from high school to college and just as he will do from college to the pros. The right size, his play is a reminder that mental attitude is what is essential for winners in football at any level. Just like Tim Tebow, Yates will eventually start for some pro team.
And coach Butch Davis will win his first-ever national championship. Football players know this. And so do most knowledgeable commentators. That he has survived, calm in the face of an incredible storm with his job on the line, is a credit to his character. Whatever happened to the student-athletes under his watch, and whatever the outcome of the NCAA's ongoing investigation one thing is now certain.
Davis will triumph in large part due to one of the greatest coaching jobs in NCAA history. Taking his undermanned, investigated, maligned and injured team to this Music City Bowl triumph will live up to the billing of this soon-to-be regularly replayed game. A monument to character and spirit in this tough economic time. Butch Davis is a winner in every sense of the word.
And so is the entire UNC Tar Heels football team. In every sense of the term, they have True Grit.