ATLANTA — Against all odds, undermanned North Carolina nearly rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit before losing 30-24 to LSU on Saturday night.
Patrick Peterson had 257 yards — including an 87-yard touchdown — on kickoff and punt returns, leading No. 21 LSU (1-0) to a 30-10 halftime lead. Not surprising, given the Tar Heels were missing 13 key players because of an NCAA investigation over relationships with agents and possible academic violations.
But No. 18 North Carolina (0-1) made a game of it, scoring two second-half touchdowns, then getting two shots at the win after recovering an onside kick and a fumble. T.J. Yates drove the Heels to the LSU 2-yard line and got off a pair of passes into the end zone after throwing for a career-high 412 yards.
Both slipped through the hands of Zack Pianalto.
Hey, give the Tar Heels credit — it looked as though they were headed for a blowout.
Backed up against his own goal line, Yates rolled to his right and heaved a pass out of the end zone that Jheranie Boyd took to the other end zone for a 97-yard touchdown — the longest play from scrimmage in North Carolina history. Yates then hooked up with Erik Highsmith on a 14-yard touchdown with 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
North Carolina recovered a disputed onside kick, but LSU stopped that drive by forcing Yates to fumble as he tried to scramble. Trying to run out the clock, Stevan Ridley fumbled and the Tar Heels recovered, getting one more shot for an improbable victory.
Missing so many players, the trickle down to the special teams left the Tar Heels especially vulnerable. Peterson, a junior cornerback, took advantage with four punt returns for 157 yards and three kickoff returns for 100 yards.
Former quarterback Russell Shepard, now playing receiver to take advantage of his speed, hauled in a touchdown pass and broke off a 50-yard scoring run for LSU. And the current quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, finished off the first half with a 51-yard scoring pass to Rueben Randle.
North Carolina was missing most of the NFL prospects on its touted defense — at least six starters, including the entire secondary. The offense wasn't at full strength, either, forced to improvise without leading receiver Greg Little and its top two tailbacks, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston.
But plenty of players stepped up for the Tar Heels, no one more than Yates. He completed 28 of 45 and had three touchdown passes. His favorite receiver was Boyd, who had six catches for 221 yards, making him only the fourth player in North Carolina history to have 200 receiving yards in a game.
Jefferson was 15 of 21 for 151 yards. Ridley rushed for 81 yards and Shepard had 67, while the LSU defense limited North Carolina to 24 yards on the ground.
But the Tiger nearly let it slip away at the end, which would have been a devastating blow to coach Les Miles and a program that's trying to show it's still a powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference. Just three years removed from a national championship, LSU has lost eight SEC games over the last two years and watched Florida and Alabama reclaim the dominant roles.
LSU appeared headed for a blowout after scoring 23 straight points over the final 8:06 of the first half.
Peterson sparked the outburst with a 47-yard kickoff return to midfield. On the very next play, Shepard took the handoff on an end around, jetted around the left side and was gone down the sideline.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hunter Furr bobbled the ball in the end zone and apparently thought he had to bring it out — yet another blunder on special teams. He was swarmed over by the Tigers, leaving North Carolina at its own 4.
Three plays later, the Tar Heels gave up a safety when center P.J. Lonergan snapped the ball past Yates, who wasn't ready for the shotgun hike. It rolled out of the back of the end zone.
Peterson kept it going by fielding a punt at his own 13, gliding to his right, then making a quick cut through the hole that sent him off on the TD that made it 23-10.
He wasn't done. Peterson set up the final score with a 37-yard punt return to the LSU 49. On the next play, Jefferson found Randle streaking down the middle of the field and hit him in stride for the touchdown.
Randle beat freshman cornerback Tre Boston, who surely didn't expect to be in this position. He wasn't even listed on the two-deep depth chart put out by the school before its NCAA troubles began.