Missouri Tigers quarterback James Franklin (1) escapes the grasp of North Carolina Tar Heels defensive end Kareem Martin (95) during the fourth quarter. SHANE KEYSER - Kansas City Star/MCT
Updated 9:50 p.m.
SHREVEPORT, La. — After North Carolina’s 41-24 defeat against Missouri in the Independence Bowl, Everett Withers walked into the Tar Heels’ locker room for the final time as UNC’s head coach. He said told his players that he loved them.
He referenced the drama the Tar Heels have experienced in the past two seasons – an NCAA investigation, the firing of Butch Davis – and Withers said he told his team to carry on the lessons they learned from those trying times. The Tar Heels had desperately wanted to give Withers a victory in his final game.
But their trip here to Independence Stadium didn’t come with an ending fit for storybooks or movies. Instead, UNC (7-6) gave a disappointing performance that led to a disappointing defeat. As much as the Tar Heels talked about winning for Withers, they lacked the effort – and the execution – necessary for the desired outcome.
“You know, you always want to go out with a win,” said Withers, who became UNC's head coach in late July, one day after the university fired Davis amid an NCAA investigation. “Regardless, you always want to win your last one. Doesn’t always work out that way for you. So you just move on.”
Withers will move on to Ohio State, where he will serve as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator. And the Tar Heels, when they return from winter break, will move on to the Larry Fedora era. The former Southern Miss head coach will begin his official duties in Chapel Hill on Jan. 9.
But most UNC players weren’t in the mood to talk about the future on Monday night.
“I’m still lingering on this game,” said UNC freshman running back Giovani Bernard. “I think that really won’t kick in until we get back, you know, Jan. 9, and start talking to the new coaching staff and things like that …
“But for the most part, this entire break that we have coming up, I think I’ll be lingering on this game.”
Bernard had been dominant at times this season but Missouri held him to 31 yards on 13 carries. UNC, meanwhile, had no answer for the Tigers’ running game.
Missouri (8-5) gained 337 yards rushing and averaged 7.3 yards per carry. The Tar Heels arrived here with a rushing defense that ranked 14th nationally, but they appeared confused against a Tigers’ spread-option ground game.
James Franklin, the Missouri quarterback, gained 142 yards on 18 carries. And Kendial Lawrence added 108 yards rushing. Franklin and Lawrence combined to run for half of Missouri’s six touchdowns.
The Tar Heels started fast and had a 7-0 lead after Bryn Renner’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Jones. But Missouri answered with 31 consecutive points and led 31-10 at halftime.
“We had momentum and then really just couldn’t get things going,” Renner said.
Afterward, Renner spoke with emotion about the Tar Heels’ failure to win – their failure to do much of anything – in Withers’ final game. When it was over, Withers walked quickly to midfield to shake hands with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, and then Withers hurried off the field.
His tenure as UNC’s interim head coach was over.
“I just take away what we went through to get to this point,” said Renner, who passed for 317 yards and three touchdowns. “I think we went through a lot this season and showed the character of our coaching staff and these players and this team. I can’t say enough about this team.
“It’s one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been on because of what we’ve gone through and how close we’ve become.”