The helmet struck the turf hard, bounced up into the air, rolled several feet, then stopped and just sat there — peacefully.
In stark contrast, everything around that piece of equipment was far from tranquil.
When Tennessee defensive end Gerald Williams tossed his helmet, he did so amidst one of the most bizarre finishes to a college football game — ever. It capped off a wild final 31 seconds of regulation of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Thursday night. And it was just the beginning of the frustration for a Volunteers squad that ultimately lost to North Carolina 30-27 in double overtime.
“Everyone wanted to throw their helmet at that point,” Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker said.
Other things were thrown, like bottles and food and fits after a game that had been declared over had, in fact, gained new life.
The chaos picked up on the last play of regulation — or so the sellout crowd of 69,143 at LP Field thought. Down 20-17, the Tar Heels used a seven-yard run by Shaun Draughn to advance to Tennessee’s 18-yard line. But Draughn didn’t pick up a first down and with no timeouts left and less than 10 seconds remaining, North Carolina (8-5) needed to rush to the line and spike the ball to stop the clock.
However, several members of the Tar Heels’ special teams unit scurried onto the field. With players running to and from the sidelines and the clock ticking, North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates took the snap and spiked the ball. It was obvious the Tar Heels had more than 11 players on the field and a flag was thrown.
The clock showed zero and the officials declared the game over and tried to run off the field. The Volunteers (6-7) erupted and poured out onto the field, certain of victory. Not so fast. Referee Dennis Lipski turned his microphone back on and said that the ball had been spiked with one second left. He said North Carolina would be penalized five yards for illegal substitution.
Thus, the Tar Heels were given another chance and Tar Heels placekicker Casey Barth sent the contest into overtime with a 39-yard field goal.
“I have been involved in coaching for 37 years and when you stand on the sidelines you get an opportunity to see a lot of bizarre things happen in a coaching career,” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. “This is going to have to be one of those games that I think ESPN Classic will be showing a 100 years from now.”
It was a finish eerily similar to Tennessee’s road loss to LSU back in October. The Volunteers thought they had that game won, too. They stopped LSU on the last play of the game and celebrated the win. But officials reviewed the play and saw that Tennessee had 13 players on the field. LSU won the game on the next play.
“I thought I had seen it all in Baton Rouge,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “Just when you think you have seen it all, you haven’t. It was chaos again. I had a sick feeling when that thing hit zero because I have been there. I didn’t celebrate this time.”
The continuation of the Music City Bowl sent LP Field into a frenzy. A chorus of boos rained in from the heavily Tennessee crowd. Bottles flew in and out of the stands. One object that ended up by the North Carolina sideline was returned to seats behind the Tar Heels bench. Several North Carolina players had to be contained from yelling and motioning toward fans.
Williams’ helmet toss came immediately after Barth’s tying kick. He was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and was assessed to North Carolina’s opening possession. The Tar Heels started at the 12 ½ yard line instead of the 25 and scored quickly thereafter. Tennessee responded with a touchdown to send it to a second overtime.
But Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was intercepted and three plays later Barth kicked a 23-yard game-winning field goal.
“Most teams don't ever have that happen to them and we have had it happen to us twice this year,” defensive end Chris Walker said. “It is really difficult, especially to feel the pain of defeat after we have worked so hard this whole season. To get this far and have it all taken away from us is really disappointing.”
If the penalty for illegal substitution had occurred in the NFL, 10 seconds would have been run off the clock. The rule is in place to avoid rewarding a penalized team by giving it extra time.
College football has no such rule.
“That’s why they have a 10-second runoff rule in the NFL so an offense can’t do that to give themselves a chance to win,” Dooley said. “We probably should get it.”
Dooley left the postgame press conference dejected. But as he walked back toward the Tennessee locker room he was joined by his wife, Allison, and their children. Dooley flashed a smile as he talked to Allison while his 6-year-old daughter Julianna laughed with Tennessee officials.
It was a memorable, peaceful moment — one that would seem fitting anywhere else.
But not here. Not at the site of one of the craziest endings in college football.
• The game probably wouldn’t have come down to that last play if Tennessee hadn’t made a few miscues.
Two stick out: Daniel Lincoln’s missed extra point and Janzen Jackson’s personal foul.
After Tennessee took a 20-17 lead on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Bray to Justin Hunter with 5:15 left in regulation, Lincoln lined up for the point-after. The kick was low and was tipped by Donte Paige-Moss. Ultimately the ball fell short of the goalpost.
Then, on the first play of North Carolina’s final drive in regulation, Jackson, a safety, was called for a personal foul after Yates hooked up with Todd Harrelson for a 28-yard gain. Replays showed that Jackson led with his helmet and struck Harrelson in the back between his shoulders. It added 15 yards to the drive and put the Tar Heels at Tennessee’s 37 with 25 seconds left.
“Breaks just don't go our way sometimes,” Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “There are some things we could have done better. They didn't beat us. We beat ourselves.”
• Draughn finished with 160 yards on 23 carries. The senior running back was starting in place of Anthony Elzy, who did not make the trip as a result of failing to meet academic requirements.
Draughn, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2009, made his presence known early as he broke off a 58-yard touchdown run on North Carolina’s opening drive in the first quarter.
“We missed him all year long but he sure came through tonight like a complete champion,” Davis said.
• It was North Carolina’s third straight bowl appearance and first bowl victory since winning the Peach Bowl in 2001. That was also the last time before Thursday that the Tar Heels played in a bowl game outside of North Carolina.
• Tennessee has now dropped its last two bowl games. It lost 37-14 to Virginia Tech last season in the Outback Bowl. The defeat also snapped a four-game winning streak for the Volunteers.