By Rick Brewer
Carolina is heading back to the Sun Bowl for the fifth time.
Or, as Coach Bill Dooley liked to call it, “the Fun Bowl.”
He said the Sun Bowl provided as many activities and as much entertainment for his players as any postseason event. Plus, beating a good Texas Tech team on the first trip in 1972 made it even better. That victory finished an 11-1 season, one of the best in school history.
The Tar Heels might have been playing elsewhere that year. But, a schedule change and a loss at Ohio State kept Carolina out of a New Year’s Day bowl.
Dooley had put together his most balanced and deepest team that year. The Tar Heels did not throw a lot, but had big-play receivers like Jimmy Jerome, Ted Leverenz, Earle Bethea and Ken Taylor.
Ike Oglesby, Sammy Johnson and Billy Hite rotated at tailback and combined for 1,642 yards.
The strength of the team was the offensive line. Ron Rusnak, a 6-2, 220-pound guard, was a consensus All-America that fall and tackle Jerry Sain won All-ACC honors for the second straight year. Center Bob Thornton had been an all-conference selection the previous year, tackle Robert Pratt would be an All-ACC choice in 1973 and guard Ken Huff would be an All-America in 1974.
The team’s leader was Nick Vidnovic, a junior quarterback who had never thrown a college pass. He won the job during pre-season practice.
It is impossible to compare today’s wide-open, spread offenses to the ones that teams used in the early 1970s. Vidnovic threw for just 1,096 yards and ran for 149. But, he engineered Dooley’s I-formation attack and made big plays when they were needed the most.
Five defensive players won all-conference honors— linebackers Jimmy DeRatt and Mike Mansfield, end Gene Brown, tackle Eric Hyman and cornerback Lou Angelo. The Tar Heels were two deep in the front eight of their 4-4 defense.
The problem Carolina faced in gaining more national attention was the lack of a signature victory. There were two opportunities, Ohio State and Florida, on the schedule.
The Tar Heels opened the season with wins over Richmond, Maryland and N.C. State. Vidnovic directed two scoring drives in the second half of a 31-26 win at College Park. DeRatt forced and recovered a fumble in the final minute to preserve the victory.
The following week Carolina and State played one of the greatest games in the history of the series. The Tar Heels survived, 34-33, when linebacker Terry Taylor broke up a two-point conversion pass with just 10 seconds to play. Despite all the points, two defensive plays proved to be the difference.
Gene Brown caused a fumble on a Wolfpack punting attempt and DeRatt recovered at the one-yard line late in the game. Hite scored with 58 seconds left for a 34-27 lead. But, State quickly drove 80 yards for a touchdown. Taylor then made his game-saving play.
Then came the game at Ohio State. The Tar Heels led the third-ranked Buckeyes, 7-0, in the first quarter. But, Archie Griffin ran for 239 yards and Ohio State came back for a 29-14 win.
The game against the Gators had been scheduled for October. But, prior to the season Carolina and Florida athletic officials switched the game to December 9, two weeks after what should have been the Tar Heels’ final game.
The idea was to get the game nationally-televised since there would be no other college football that day. But, none of the networks would go for the plan. Only those people in the Gator Bowl that day saw Carolina rally for a 28-24 victory and a 10-1 finish.
Almost every bowl slot was filled following what should have been the end of Carolina’s regular season. None wanted to take a chance the Tar Heels might lose to Florida.
However, Sun Bowl officials had been interested in Carolina since October and issued an invitation even before the game with the Gators.
Carolina came from behind to win in Jacksonville. Johnson ran for a touchdown, giving the Tar Heels a 26-24 lead with 1:41 left. Vidnovic then threw a two-point conversion pass to Leverenz for a four-point advantage. Florida drove back to the Carolina nine-yard line, but could not score in four plays from there.
Two weeks later the Tar Heels were in El Paso. Texas Tech had a month of preparation and rest. Tar Heel coaches had half that time to get ready for the game.
Carolina controlled play as it had all season, running 86 plays to just 54 for Texas Tech. A 9-7 halftime lead for the Tar Heels did not last long as George Smith broke off a 65-yard scoring run on the Raiders’ first play in the third quarter. On Tech’s next possession, Smith went 46 yards for another touchdown and a 21-9 lead.
Vidnovic then took control of the game. He threw a 62-yard scoring pass to Leverenz. Next he led a 13-play, 79-yard drive with Hite scoring on a three-yard run.
Smith put Tech back ahead, 28-24, with a five-yard run. An exchange of punts set up Carolina’s last drive. The big play was a five-yard keeper by Vidnovic on a fourth-and-one. He finished things off with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Leverenz with just 1:00 left. A missed extra point left Carolina ahead 30-28.
But, tackle Ronnie Robinson dropped Raider quarterback Joe Barnes for a safety to clinch a 32-28 win.
Now comes another appearance in El Paso. Carolina is hoping this trip is just as good as that first one.