ATLANTA - Zack Pianalto couldn't do anything but stay hunched over in the end zone. His quarterback, T.J. Yates, remained down on the turf a little more than 10 yards away.
Finally, tackle Alan Pelc came over to pick up Yates, and Pianalto rose to a standing position, all of them realizing simultaneously that they had almost created the most memorable moment in North Carolina football history.
Instead, they were forced to face the disappointment of a frenzied comeback that fell short when Pianalto dropped a Yates pass in the end zone as time expired.
And as the ball bounced away, so did the hope of a miracle finish for 18th-ranked Carolina in what ended up a 30-24 loss to No. 21 LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game.
"I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a group of kids and the way they came back at the end of a ball game," UNC coach Butch Davis said.
A 5 ½-minute, 23-point barrage in the second quarter from LSU looked like it would doom the Tar Heels, after they went from leading 10-7 to trailing by 20.
Instead, Carolina's defense - short six starters thanks to the 13-player contingent that UNC held out of the game as a result of the NCAA investigations hovering over the program - held the Tigers scoreless in the second half.
And UNC's offense, which looked punchless for portions of the game, made play after play to keep LSU reeling.
That produced career days for Yates, who threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns, and receiver Jheranie Boyd, who caught six balls for 221 yards.
It was a school-record 97-yard touchdown pass from Yates to Boyd that sparked the Tar Heels' turnaround in the fourth quarter. UNC cut the LSU lead to six when Yates found Erik Highsmith for a touchdown with 2 ½ minutes to go.
That's when the comeback got really wild.
First, Carolina recovered an onside kick, only to turn the ball over on downs.
Then freshman cornerback Tre Boston - one of the players forced into action because of the roster depletions - forced a fumble that linebacker Quan Sturdivant scooped up with 1:08 to go, setting up Yates' near-fateful march down the field.
"He was tremendous," said Pianalto, who had eight grabs for 74 yards before dropping two in a row in the end zone in the final six seconds. "He just picked them apart."
It made LSU's second quarter surge seem like a distant memory.
The Tigers struck quickly - on a 50-yard run, an 87-yard punt return and a 51-yard pass, with a UNC safety mixed in - and looked like they might make the game a runaway.
With a second-string defense starting and many special-teamers pulling double duty, the Heels easily could have folded without their entire starting secondary and two of the nation's best defensive linemen.
Instead, UNC held the Tigers to 118 second half yards and kept them off the scoreboard.
"A lot of people probably thought it would be a blowout," defensive lineman Quinton Coples said. "We just got our minds right and took pride in doing what we were doing. We don't like losing, but we showed a lot of pride."
While the Tar Heels made it clear they weren't looking for any moral victories - either because of the near-miraculous finish or the fact that it happened without some of the team's best players - there was no denying things could have been a lot worse.
Instead of licking their wounds in private, the Tar Heels got to pick themselves up off the turf - literally and figuratively - on national television knowing that things can only get better from here.