Saturday's late show: Resiliant North Carolina

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 7:59 PM

To say that Butch Davis's North Carolina squad showed up to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in less than ideal circumstances would be a considerable understatement. The Tar Heels - once expected to possess one of the country's stingiest defenses this season - were without six defensive starters and four defensive reserves Saturday night against No. 21 Louisiana State. They also were missing three key offensive contributors.

And still, No. 18 North Carolina nearly pulled out a win in its season opener. With no time left on the clock, Tar Heels quarterback T.J. Yates fired a pass into the end zone intended for tight end Zack Pianalto. The throw fell incomplete, sealing LSU's 30-24 win.

"I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a group of kids," Davis told reporters afterward. "The way they fought to get themselves back into the ballgame. We didn't play very well in the first half. We made so many mistakes in the kicking game, we really put ourselves in a hole. But one thing that defines your character and your guts is your ability to compete."

Because of NCAA investigations into potential academic misconduct and possible improper benefits provided by sports agents, 13 North Carolina players were declared ineligible to play against the Tigers. Yet, it was LSU's defense that proved porous. Yates completed 28 of 46 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Tar Heels wideout Jheranie Boyd caught six passes for 221 yards and a touchdown.

The Tigers were bailed out in large part thanks to the kickoff and punt returns of junior cornerback Patrick Peterson, who compiled 257 yards on special teams, including an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown that put LSU up by 13 points late in the first half.

The Tigers led, 30-10, at halftime and did not score again. They did, however, turn the ball over five times, which agitated Coach Les Miles.

"We won a football game tonight in very sloppy fashion," Miles told reporters after the game. "If we just play efficient football, this game is not even close. We've got to tie up some loose ends right now."

North Carolina would prefer to tie up some loose ends of its own. It is unknown how many games defensive tackle Marvin Austin, cornerback Charles Brown, cornerback Kendric Burney, tailback Shaun Draughn, defensive end Linwan Euwell, safety Brian Gupton, tailback Ryan Houston, wide receiver Greg Little, defensive end Michael McAdoo, defensive end Robert Quinn, safety Da'Norris Searcy, safety Jonathan Smith and safety Deunta Williams - all of whom sat out Saturday's contest - will miss as the NCAA investigations proceed.

The Tar Heels will have a little extra time to sort those matters out, though. They now enter their bye week and will not play again until Sept. 18 at home against No. 16 Georgia Tech.

And then there's No. 1 Alabama, which will host No. 19 Penn State. The Nittany Lions were thought by many critics to be overrated entering the season. If they're looking for an opportunity to prove those people wrong, this is it.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company