Thu Dec 30 10:57pm EST
North Carolina 30, Tennessee 27 (Overtime). I'm not sure what Derek Dooley did to infuriate the gods of clock management, but whatever it was, they are relentless. Twice this season, Tennessee has watched an opposing offense butcher the final seconds of a two-minute drill in a stunning, chaotic lapse as the game clock expires with the Volunteers in the lead. And twice, they've had their on-field celebration cut short by a replay, been ushered back to the sideline and forced to line up again for their ham-fisted opponent's one-in-a-million mulligan. Both times, they left dejected, defeat snatched from victory in the most absurd possible fashion.
At least the first time, it was their own fault: The Vols handed LSU an extra shot at the winning touchdown by lining up with 13 men on the field during the chaos of the Tigers' ill-fated attempt to get off a final play from the goal line.
This time, the chaos was entirely on North Carolina. With Tennessee up 20-17 and UNC in range for a tying field goal, the Tar Heels decided to run another play with 16 seconds on the clock and no timeouts – fine, if the offense can get back over the ball in time to spike it after the play, stop the clock and bring on the field goal team. It's not so fine when the field goal team panics and tries to run onto the field a down too soon, while the offense is still lining up to spike the ball.
Amid the confusion, Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates – a fifth-year senior and perhaps the only player on the field not losing his mind as a dozen teammates hustled to and from the sideline and back again – managed to take a snap from center and spike the ball into the ground with one second on the clock, and seventeen Tar Heels on the field:
In this case, the one second is vastly more important than the six extra guys. On review (which inconveniently took place after the Vols had rushed the field and head official announced to the partisan crowd that "The game is over"), North Carolina was penalized five yards for too many men on the field, but also granted the extra second for Casey Barth's 40-yard boot to send the game to overtime.
From there, the teams traded touchdowns in the first OT, and the Tar Heels were able to trot Barth out to knock through the game-winner after linebacker Quan Sturdivant picked off the Vols' freshman quarterback, Tyler Bray, in the second frame. North Carolina wins, while Tennessee gets stuck with a losing record for the year (6-7) and another eight months to wonder what just happened. Again.
The answer? There is no answer, except that football is a crazy game sometimes. Yates got the snap off with a tick on the clock. The illegal participation penalty was called and assessed. Unlike the NFL, there's no mandatory five or ten-second run-off on offensive procedure penalties in the final minute. For its part, Tennessee sabotaged the cause on two occasions in the fourth quarter, first by missing an extra point that left them with a three-point lead, 20-17, instead of four, and later by drawing a "targeting" penalty that added 15 crucial yards to the end of a reception on the Tar Heels' game-tying drive.
Yes, it's cruel. It's unusual. It's unfair. But don't stop anytime soon, please, because it makes for gripping football.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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