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September 12, 2009EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - For North Carolina, the defense's work was never done.
First it had to keep the Tar Heels in a game when the offense was nonexistent. Then, it scored the go-ahead points when a holding call in the end zone produced a safety.
Finally, UNC's defenders had to prevent a last-minute miracle after Connecticut recovered an onside kick.
Thanks to all that, the No. 19 Tar Heels found themselves breathing a New England-sized sigh of relief as they escaped Rentschler Stadium with a 12-10 victory against the Huskies.
"That's why you don't see any 100-year-old football coaches," said UNC's Butch Davis, who certainly looked taxed as he gave his postgame address.
The overwhelming sensation at the end of the game was one of disbelief that the Tar Heels (2-0) managed to win the game at all.
Scoring was at such a premium, and the UNC offense was struggling so completely, that when UConn (1-1) went up 10-0 late in the third quarter, a Huskies win seemed like a foregone conclusion.
So when the clock hit triple-zero as defensive end Quinton Coples sacked UConn backup quarterback Cody Endres and the Tar Heels were the one with more points on the scoreboard, it seemed almost like an epic upset even though the ranked team had won.
"This is a game you remember forever," UNC linebacker Bruce Carter said.
The game-winning play, an oddity for sure, came when UConn tackle Dan Ryan took down UNC defensive end Robert Quinn in the end zone with the Huskies facing a third-and-22 with 92 seconds remaining.
"I knew I beat him around the corner, and I felt like I got pulled down," Quinn said. "Then I saw the flag."
Because holding in the end zone is an automatic safety, the Tar Heels took the lead a little more than a minute after finally tying the game.
Before it got in the scoring business, Carolina's defense was already heroic in holding UConn to 196 yards of total offense and taking the ball away twice.
"They kept battling," Davis said. "They kept playing. They kept scrapping. And they kept giving us chances."
The only touchdown Carolina surrendered - a four-yard run by Jordan Todman near the end of the third quarter - could easily be blamed on the UNC offense, which set up the Huskies with a short field when T.J. Yates had a deflection turned into a fluky interception at the Heels' 26-yard line.
Before that, the only points Carolina had given up came on a 47-yard field goal from David Teggart as time expired in the second quarter.
"This defense doesn't cease to amaze me," Yates said. "They never stop going. We put them in horrible situations and they held strong."
But for all the offense's struggles, it finally awakened on its final two drives of the game.
First, it was a 13-play, 78-yard drive - a prelude to the game-tying drive that came on the next possession - that yielded a 22-yard Casey Barth field goal.
The scoring result was less than the Heels would have hoped but still enough to reenergize the offense.
The Tar Heels tied the game with 2:36 to go in the fourth quarter on a 13-play, 76-yard, 6 ?-minute drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown pass from Yates to tight end Zack Pianalto.
Tailback Ryan Houston rushed for 33 yards on the drive - accounting for all but two of UNC's net rushing yards in the game - after the Tar Heels failed to move the ball on the ground for the entire game up to that point.
The only bad news out of that drive was that Pianalto dislocated his right foot while celebrating, marking the second year in a row that the tight end has suffered an injury on a touchdown catch.
Before the final two drives, the offense was ugly for UNC.
The Tar Heels were working with a makeshift line, missing center Lowell Dyer and left guard Jonathan Cooper, who were replaced by Cam Holland and converted defensive lineman Greg Elleby, respectively.
On top of that, fullback Bobby Rome missed the game because of the H1N1 flu.
But Davis didn't blame the poor rushing or the fact that the Huskies sacked Yates six times on personnel. He had no doubts about where to give credit for Carolina's inability to move the ball for most of the game.
"You can put 'UConn' - period," Davis said. "They are a fundamentally sound and well-coached football team."
And based on how the Tar Heels' defense helped them sneak out of town with a win, probably a pretty shocked football team, too.