There are games that come and go just as quickly as time passes, making it all seem so random.
Then there are days like Saturday morning at Culton-Peerman Stadium, where the combination of history, good fortune and incredible drama may leave one feeling that a guiding hand of fate may be paying attention, after all.
After some dominant Orange wins over Chapel Hill in recent years, local football fans were due for a classic between the two rivals on Saturday at Culton-Peerman Stadium. And after going 0-10 against Orange since 2009, Chapel Hill was set to benefit from a storybook finish.
Nolan Westrom kicked a 40-yard field goal as time expired, clearing the crossbar by inches, to vault Chapel Hill past Orange 24-22 and claim a share of the Big 8 Championship on Saturday morning at Culton-Peerman Stadium. Tiger quarterback Caleb Kelley threw a 44-yard pass to wide receiver Kyhlil Jones to set up the field goal.
It was Westrom’s second field goal of his varsity career. The other was a 37-yarder against Northern Durham on March 19.
Chapel Hill defeated Orange for the first time since 2004, which was Issac Marsh’s first win as a head coach. His latest one may be the most gratifying. In 2019, Chapel Hill went 1-10, ending with a 30-6 loss to Orange. The year before that, the Tigers didn’t field a varsity team due to a lack of players.
Through a decade of dominating its archrival, Orange had found one miraculous way after another to break the Tigers’ hearts. On Saturday, it appeared they would find one more.
With less than one minute remaining and Orange trailing 21-14, Panther quarterback Jayce Hodges found Eric Brooks for a 49 yard pass to the Chapel Hill 22-yard line. In its double wing offense, the Panthers pounded the ball to the one-yard line, where senior Jackson Wood scored on 4th-and-goal with 25 seconds remaining. Orange then took a 22-21 lead with a 2-point conversion run by Brooks, who ran around right end past blocks set by Darius Matkins, Hayden Horne and wingback Elliott Woods.
Brooks was set to join some lofty company. In 2014, Orange quarterback Garrett Cloer threw to wide receiver Ky Muller to score a 55-yard touchdown against Chapel Hill on the final play of the game to break a scoreless tie. A year later, after Chapel Hill led 34-14 at halftime at Auman Stadium, the Panthers rallied for two touchdowns in the final two minutes. After current Atlanta Braves pitcher Bryse Wilson recovered an onside kick, Tay Jones scored on a touchdown run in the final minute, then scored on a 2-point conversion (sound familiar?) to win 38-37.
After all that heartbreak, in its final game against Orange as a Big 8 Conference rival, it was Issac Marsh’s Tigers smiling at the end.
That was about all the smiling that took place between two teams that simply don’t like each other. If Orange’s first trip to Culton-Peerman Stadium since 2016 had been any more nasty, the coaches could have sent the game tape to multiplexes and entitled it “Longest Yard 2.” The game featured no less than ten 15-yard penalties, including a roughing the passer call moments before Kelley’s pass to Jones.
Chapel Hill romped down the field on its opening drive after a big return by Jones on the opening kickoff. Kelley hit Malachi Corbett for a 19-yard touchdown.
Orange responded with its ground control offense chewing up yards on the ground. Eric Brooks converted a 3rd-and-1 with a six-yard gain. Trey Grizzle, in his final Orange game, scored his first varsity touchdown off a 25-yard pass from Hodges. Darius Satterfield’s extra point tied the game.
Chapel Hill’s defensive line of Amir Lassiter, Gabe Bollinger and Marquette Bowers provided a goal line stand late in the first quarter. After J.J. Torres was stopped at the 2-yard line, Wood was stopped short on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Kelley then engineered a 99-yard drive for the Tigers. He converted two third-downs on scrambles, then hit Jones for a 58-yard gain. Jones would score off a jet sweep from six-yards away to put the Tigers ahead.
Three consecutive offside penalties helped Orange start its next drive in Tiger territory late in the second quarter. After Torres kept the possession alive with a 4-yard gain on 4th-and-1, Brooks snapped free of several tackles and scored a 20-yard touchdown to even the game 14-14.
It stayed even into the fourth quarter, but both teams had their chances to score. Orange opened the second half with a 12-play drive where Woods crossed midfield with a 21-yard pickup. The Panthers would penetrate to the Chapel Hill 14-yard line, but the Tigers’ Ta’vonne Page came up with an interception.
Once again, Kelley hooked up with Jones, this time for a 44-yard gain to kickstart the subsequent Chapel Hill drive. After running back Jaylen Mitchell ran to the Orange 10-yard line, he received another carry, but Torres knocked the ball free and it was recovered in the end zone by Orange linebacker Connor Ray.
The Panthers started the fourth quarter with another strong drive, going from its own 20-yard line to the Chapel Hill 15. Woods had a 20-yard gain off a double handoff from Torres. As with every Orange drive in the game, the Panthers crossed the 50-yard line. But the Panthers fumbled in the Chapel Hill red zone, which was recovered by Tigers’ linebacker Jamazia Williams.
Jones had the big plays on Chapel Hill’s only touchdown drive of the second half, starting with a 22-yard run around left end. On a 3rd-and-10 from the Tiger 39-yard line, Kelley hit Jones with an 11-yard pass. After runs of 19 and ten yard by Anthon Enoch, Mitchell put the Tigers ahead with a 2-yard touchdown with just over 4:00 minutes remaining.
The game was played hours after a 3-hour lightning delay on Friday night, For whatever reason, the scoreboard at Culton-Peerman Stadium, all of two-years old, was left on during a thunderstorm. It’s believed that the scoreboard may have been struck by lightning because when game officials showed up Saturday morning, it was busted. That forced officials to keep time on the field, leaving players, coaches and game staff in a constant state of confusion as to how much time was left in the game and what the score was.
As the two teams split apart into new conferences in August, there’s no word on if Chapel Hill and Orange will resume the series. As a reporter, you can only go on what you know for sure. Saturday’s game was a classic, and for once, Chapel Hill was the one smiling at the end.
For now, that is the end of the story.
CHAPEL HILL 24, ORANGE 22
CH-7 7 0 10
OR-7 7 0 8-
CHAPEL HILL-Malachi Corbett 19 pass from Caleb Kelley (Nolan Westrom kick)
ORANGE-Trey Grizzle 25 pass from Jayce Hodges (Darius Satterfield kick)
CHAPEL HILL-Kyhlil Jones 6 run (Westrom kick)
ORANGE-Eric Brooks 20 run (Satterfield kick)
CHAPEL HILL-Jaylen Mitchell 2 run (Westrom kick)
ORANGE-Jackson Wood 1 run (Brooks run)
CHAPEL HILL-Westroom 40 FG
RUSHING: ORANGE 53-289 (Brooks 18-109 TD, Elliott Woods 11-73, J.J. Torres 11-52, Wood 8-31 TD, Nate Hecht 4-13, Jayce Hodges 1-11)
CHAPEL HILL (Mitchell 18-80 TD, Anthon Enoch 4-47, Kelley 5-25, Jones 3-31 TD)
PASSING: ORANGE (Hodges 2-4 74 TD, INT) Kelley (10-13 221 TD, team 0-1)
RECEIVING: ORANGE (Brooks 1-49, Grizzle 1-25 TD)
CHAPEL HILL: (Jones 6-174, Williams 1-20 TD, Ta’vonne Page 1-16, Mitchell 1-11)