A week after their worst performance in the short John Bunting era, the subject of tremendous scrutiny, and considered by many fans and media members as a challenger to league cellar-dweller Duke for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels put on a clinic in perseverance. And finally, UNC's opposition matched them mistake-for-mistake. But no aspect of this game was bigger than the play of sophomore quarterback Darian Durant.
Durant registered school records by throwing for 417 yards and five touchdowns as the Tar Heels overcame a relentless onslaught from Arizona State to knock off the Sun Devils, 38-35, before a crowd of 42,128 at Sun Devil Stadium
"The coaches did their part by telling us not to worry about what just happened, to get ready for the next play," said Durant, who completed 25 of 40 passes. "I think them constantly banging that into our heads really made us look forward to the next play and not to worry about what just happened."
Virtually unable to stop ASU's combination of Andrew Walter's arm (474 yards passing) and a ground-attack-by-committee (215 yards), UNC didn't lose its composure. The lead changed nine times, and every time the Devils would take the lead, the Heels came back with a score of their own.
"We wanted to win no matter how we got it, even if it was a shootout," Bunting said. "It was huge for out team morale."
The key touchdown came with 2:39 left - and 1:14 after the Sun Devils went up 35-31 with 3:53 left in the game.
Backed up to their own 14 after Derrele Mitchell stumbled on a kickoff return, Durant found Jarwarski Pollock (4 receptions for 90 yards and a score) for a nine-yard gain. After an incomplete pass and a 3-yard sneak by Durant, the Florence, S.C. native rolled right to avoid pressure, and with enough room to roam at least 15 yards in front of him, he spotted Chesley Borders in an isolation with an ASU defensive back. Reading Borders, Durant heaved a beautiful pass toward the right sideline which Borders pulled in as the defender fell to the ground, and he waltzed into the end zone for a 74-yard score giving UNC a 38-35 lead with 2:39 left.
"I could hear him (offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill) in my head, all week when we were practicing the two-minute drill, I would step out of the pocket and run, and he just said to throw the ball because we have the best chance of making a play and that's what I did," Durant said about spotting Borders and opting not to run, and instead giving his receiver a chance to make the play. "I was like, ‘wow, he was right.'"
"I knew what Darian was trying to do," said Borders, who had school-record four TD receptions in his 9-catch, 192-yard performance. "He was scrambling and out of the pocket, and I really didn't know whether I should come back or not. But it seemed like he just wanted me to keep going, so I did, and we scored."
As easy as that play appeared, the night was difficult.
The Tar Heels (2-3) were flagged for 12 penalties (76 yards), including an astonishing six false starts – two on consecutive plays. The Sun Devils' 657 yards was the most ever allowed by Carolina, and Walter's passing total was also a high-water mark against UNC. Throw in 34 first downs for ASU and six sacks by the Devils, and the Tar Heels should have been cannon fodder for a team that entered on a four-game winning streak, including last week's 65-point outburst against Stanford.
But not tonight. Not this team, this program, and this coach. The same resilience that was such a part of last year's squad was on stage here in the desert. And perhaps this could be the springboard that directs Carolina toward a successful season, just like what occurred last fall.
"I hope so," said Durant when asked if this will be a similar springboard. "I think it can be. We still need to improve a lot, but this certainly can get us in the right direction."
With the score tied at 14 at the halftime, UNC struck first in the second half.
Will Chapman sacked Walter, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Larry Jessup at Arizona State's 18-yard-line. Although the Heels actually lost 12 yards on the "drive," they did manage a Dan Orner 47-yard field goal for a 17-14 advantage with 8:42 remaining in the third period. The kick was Orner's fourth of the season of at least that distance.
Two series later, ASU (4-2) marched down the field, using trickery to get into the end zone on a 19-yard run by Mike Williams, which was a fake of the reverse that one play earlier netted them 24 yards. The Sun Devils led 21-17 with 2:57 left in the third.
But the Tar Heels responded.
Pollocks' 17-yard reception on third-and-two and a pass interference call on ASU – one of three on the night, all on UNC scoring possessions – set up Durant's 29-yard TD strike to Borders along the right sideline. The answer came just 1:49 after ASU's go-ahead score, and gave Carolina a 24-21 lead. And the Heels made clear they weren't going to lie down.
"This is a very big win for us," said junior defensive end Will Chapman. "It's a big confidence boost for us. It would have been a big letdown. Our defense would have lost that game for us. But we prevailed, and I am just happy with a win. We can go back to practice this week and rectify what went wrong, and it is easier coming off a win, especially against a good team."
Nearly as resilient, the Sun Devils responded with a score of their own, marching 80 yards in 10 plays to forge ahead, 28-24 with 12:41 remaining in the contest.
Yet it didn't look like it.
After UNC went three-and-out, ASU moved at will – as they had all night – and appeared headed toward a likely game-clinching score, but Michael Waddell, maligned for his play this season, came up with a tough interception near ASU's goal line, giving the Heels more life.
Five plays later Durant hooked up with Pollock for a 65-yard touchdown, pushing the Tar Heels ahead, 31-28 with 7:11 left.
Yet the Sun Devils didn't seem affected at all, as they moved 90 yards on nine plays to go ahead again, 35-31 with 3:53 left.
The drive included plays of 13, 16, 39, 15, 7, and 4 yards, with the latter a scoring run by Hakim Hill.
A minute-fourteen later, UNC scored the game's final points.
"It felt great after scoring," Borders said. "It seemed like we had been there (control of the game) a bunch of times before, but that time I knew it was it. I knew that was the game."
Carolina took advantage of ASU's endless array of mistakes, which included four missed field goal attempts by kicker Mike Barth, who entered the game 7-7 on kicks inside of 50 yards. The Sun Devils had 100 yards in penalties, and Walter was picked twice in crucial situations.
Carolina opened the scoring, turning an Arizona State fumble into an 82-yard scoring drive in the first half to go up 7-0 with 4:01 left in the first quarter.
ASU evened the score with a two-yard run by Williams with 14:55 remaining before intermission. Less than three minutes later the Sun Devils went ahead 14-7 on an 11-yard run by Cornell Canidate.
The teams then traded the ball twice each before Carolina went on an impressive 90-yard scoring drive – its longest of the season, which was capped by a 31-yard pass from Durant to Borders, knotting the game at 14 with 1:21 left in the first half.
"We just kept coming back all night," a happy Bunting said outside of Carolina locker room. "The crowd noise played a factor but we didn't get discouraged and stayed in the game the whole night."
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.