Friday, December 31, 2010

Carolina stuns Tennessee in last 30 seconds of Music City Bowl

This post does not contain news for my readers who are game-watching Carolina fans. I wrote this to experiment with sports writing and to attempt to explain some elements of football to those unfamiliar with the sport. I also wrote it to document some details of the last regulation drive that I hope to not forget. For a closer look, read Lee Pace's story from the sidelines.

The Tar Heels had a rare opportunity tonight to win a bowl game they appeared to have lost to Tennessee. And they seized it. I know not all of you enjoy or understand football, but the following true account of events at the end of regulation would astound almost anyone.

Trailing by a field goal with 1:36 to go in the game, Carolina turned the ball over on downs with two timeouts left after Dwight Jones dropped a pass that would have kept a game-winning drive alive. All Tennessee had to do to win the game was get one first down by advancing the ball ten yards in four plays. The Volunteers tried to run the ball up the middle three times, but the Tar Heels stuffed each attempt and burned both remaining timeouts. Tennessee had to punt the ball to the Heels, who had the daunting task of scoring at least a field goal from their own 20-yard line in 31 seconds with no timeouts remaining. This is where the embedded video below begins.

Football coaches refer to these game-ending offensive drives as two-minute drills because they typically take two minutes to complete without using any timeouts. Carolina had a fraction of that time.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback T.J. Yates threw a 28-yard pass to Todd Harrelson, who was illegally hit helmet-to-helmet by a Volunteer defender. The officials added an extra 15 yards to the end of the play. Now Carolina had the ball on the Tennessee 37-yard line and was almost close enough to kick a game-tying field goal. Carolina's chances were not slim anymore.

The Heels needed to gain a few more yards to be in field goal range, and they appeared to do exactly that with a seven-yard completion to Dwight Jones. However, the referees claimed to have blown a whistle before the snap to stop the game and review Harrelson's catch; the officials cannot legally review a play after the next play starts. None of the 22 players on the field appeared to have heard the whistle and executed the play at full speed. The officials ruled the seven-yard gain null and began a long video review to determine whether Harrelson hung onto the ball after the helmet-to-helmet collision. After four long minutes, they decided that the video evidence could not disprove the ruling on the field that Harrelson caught the ball.

And so with only 25 seconds remaining to get into field goal range, the Carolina players and coaches needed to exercise clock management.

Football teams can stop the game clock between plays without using timeouts by running the ball out of bounds, throwing an incomplete pass, or spiking the ball immediately after hiking it. The clock continues to run if a ball carrier goes down between the sidelines. If a ball carrier goes down after getting a first down, the game clock stops momentarily for the officials to reset the first-down marker but starts running again before the next play begins. Two-minute drills utilize passing and running plays to either sideline for these reasons.

Yates threw another pass, this time for 12 yards, to Dwight Jones for a first down. A Volunteer defender delivered an obvious late hit that the officials either missed or ignored. Then Yates spiked the ball to stop the clock since Jones did not get out of bounds. On 2nd and 10 from the Tennessee 25 with about 16 seconds remaining, most fans expected the Heels to attempt a field goal or run one more passing play. Neither happened when Yates handed off the ball to Shaun Draughn, who gained seven yards to the Tennessee 18. The clock continued to tick from 11 seconds when Draughn hit the ground. The Heels needed to line up and spike the ball to stop the clock so that Casey Barth could have enough time to kick the tying field goal. Chaos ensued instead.

The offensive players scrambled into position on the field while an additional seven or eight players from the field goal unit mistakenly ran onto the field because of a lack of communication. Some of the mistaken players ran back to the sideline when they saw Yates still standing behind the center. Several others, including the kicker and holder, did not. Yates, frustrated with having too many men on the field and seeing that only two seconds remained, made the game-saving decision to snap and spike the ball anyway. The clock ran down to :00.

The Tennessee players and fans celebrated because they thought the game was over after Carolina's personnel and clock management errors. A referee confirmed the apparent when he announced that the game was over. Carolina appeared to have lost its third straight bowl game, and this time it was simply because of poor communication. The two head coaches met at midfield for a post-game handshake. Yates shook hands with a Tennessee player. A slew of Carolina players jogged off the field. But then, over all the jubilant Tennessee noise, another referee strained to explain that the previous play was under review.

Of course the replay showed that Carolina had too many men on the field, but, more importantly, it also showed that the spiked ball hit the ground before the clock expired. The officials assessed a five-yard penalty for having too many men on the field but also awarded the Heels with one final play with a fraction of a second left on the clock. Carolina kicker Casey Barth would have a chance to kick a 40-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. The confusion was so great that the clock actually read :00 when both teams were set for the next play. This changed to :01, and mere seconds later Barth sent the game-tying field goal through the uprights despite drawing a roughing-the-kicker penalty flag.

Carolina players reported after the game that Tennessee fans hurled items onto the field in disgust. A Tennessee player threw his helmet and received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to be assessed with the roughing penalty on Carolina's opening overtime possession. The Volunteers committed three personal foul penalties in the last 30 seconds of regulation; they had mentally shut down.

The game was unique because overtime was not nearly as exciting as the end of regulation. Both teams scored touchdowns on their first possessions, but Carolina linebacker Quan Sturdivant intercepted Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray's pass on the second possession. Barth kicked the game-winning field goal soon after. Head coach Butch Davis received his first celebratory dousing as a Tar Heel.

It was Carolina's first bowl win since 2001.

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