Kendric Burney had just grabbed his third interception and returned it across midfield when he saw roommate Melvin Williams to his right near the sideline. Suddenly, the ball came loose and ended up with Williams, who sprinted the final 44 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown for North Carolina.
Was it a fumble? An illegal forward pitch?
“It was definitely a fumble,” Burney said with a laugh, “but I just pitched it to him.”
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Either way, the replay-reviewed score stood and helped the Tar Heels beat No. 12 Miami, 33-24, on Saturday, keeping coach Butch Davis unbeaten against his former program and making North Carolina bowl-eligible for the second straight season.
Burney returned an interception 77 yards for a score late in the first half for a 20-7 halftime lead, and the disputed score following his third pick gave North Carolina (7-3, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) a 30-17 lead with 9 1/2 minutes left. That was enough margin for the Tar Heels, who sealed it when Casey Barth kicked his fourth field goal with 1:57 left.
The Tar Heels have won three straight overall and five straight against ranked opponents dating to last season. They’ve also won all three meetings against the Hurricanes (7-3, 4-3) since Davis took over in 2007.
Burney finished with 170 interception return yards – a single-game ACC record and a school record for an entire season – and became the first Tar Heel to have three picks in a game since Dre’ Bly in 1996.
But afterward, all anybody wanted to talk about was the Burney-to-Williams return, which began when Burney made the interception at his own 10 and returned it 45 yards. Replays appeared to show the ball slipping from Burney’s hand and officials upheld it as a fumble, not a forward pitch.
Williams said Burney had teasingly said after an earlier interception that he planned to pitch it to him next time, adding that Burney “meant to do it, no matter what.”
“I just froze, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘OK, let me go ahead and get out of bounds,’ and then everybody was like, ‘Run!’ That’s when I started running and my eyes got big for the end zone.”
North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates saw the replay on the scoreboard and could only shrug.
“I didn’t know whether it was a lateral or it just slipped out of his hands,” he said, “but I’m glad the referees made the right call.”
Miami coach Randy Shannon had another take on it.
“To me, it looked like he pitched it forward, but I can’t get involved in it,” Shannon said. “One play shouldn’t make the difference in the game, but it happened, so we’ve got to accept what it is and move on.”
The Hurricanes moved the ball effectively against the nation’s fifth-ranked total defense, racking up 435 yards and getting rushing scores from Graig Cooper and Damien Berry. They even answered Williams’ TD return with a quick touchdown drive of their own to stay in the game.
But the Tar Heels pressured Jacory Harris into a career-high four interceptions, with all three of Burney’s coming deep in North Carolina territory.
“I really can’t explain it,” Harris said. “I went out there and made some bad throws. All mental mistakes. I just put my team in the worst-case scenario and North Carolina took advantage of it.”
The loss came a short time after the Hurricanes saw their outside chance of winning the ACC Coastal Division title disappear with No. 7 Georgia Tech’s rout of Duke in nearby Durham, sending the Yellow Jackets to next month’s ACC championship game.
As for the Tar Heels, it ended up being an opportunity for redemption.
Three weeks ago, North Carolina led Florida State 24-6 in the third quarter before its defense faltered and its offense did little to help down the stretch in a 30-27 loss. On Saturday, North Carolina led 23-7 in the third, and held on when its offense put together an 11-play, 60-yard drive that took more than 5 minutes off the clock and set up Barth’s final field goal – the kind of drive it couldn’t manage against the Seminoles.
Ryan Houston ran for 76 yards for the Tar Heels, including 33 on that final drive.