Amidst the torrent of fumbles and sporadic offense from both sides, North Carolina head coach James Oddo had an ace up his sleeve the whole time.
Alabama-bound Keenan Allen sealed the Tarheels' 24-14 Shrine Bowl victory with a 32-yard run out of the Wildcat formation on fourth down with 5:27 left to play Saturday afternoon at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium. North Carolina's victory in the 73rd edition of the annual All-Star showcase snapped South Carolina's two-game winning streak.
"We went ahead and put [the Wildcat featuring Allen] in," said Oddo, who is head coach at Charlotte Catholic. "And we were going to go to it sometime in the ballgame if we needed to, and we needed to."
After the Tarheels jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead, the Sandlappers rallied behind the running of Byrnes standout and South Carolina Mr. Football Marcus Lattimore, who scored on a pair of 1-yard second-half touchdown runs to cut the North Carolina lead to 17-14 by the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Lattimore, who was named South Carolina's offensive MVP, finished with 99 yards on 17 carries.
The Sandlappers appeared to be driving for a potential go-ahead score when Boiling Springs quarterback and South Carolina commit Dylan Thompson fumbled an exchange with Lattimore that was recovered by North Carolina's Major Bryant of James B. Dudley.
"We couldn't make a decision right there whether to keep it or hand it," said South Carolina head coach Louis Lineberger of Johnsonville. "So we ended up putting the ball on the ground."
The ball spent a lot of time there.
Thompson's fumble was the 12th of the game between the two teams and the sixth for South Carolina. The Sandlappers committed seven fumbles, including a muffed punt, that resulted in four turnovers. The Tarheels fumbled five times with two turnovers.
All six turnovers on fumbles led to scores, including Chris Smith's 67-yard fumble return for a touchdown to start the scoring with three seconds remaining in the opening quarter. The Arkansas-bound Smith was named North Carolina's defensive MVP, while West Rowan teammate Kevin Parks, Jr., a Virginia commit, earned offensive MVP honors.
Goose Creek linebacker Malcom Howard was named defensive MVP for the Sandlappers after sharing the team lead in tackles with seven.
Parks, who capped a four-play, 18-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with a minute to play in the first half that put the Tarheels ahead 17-0, finished with 97 yards on 19 attempts.
But the Sandlappers answered in the second half after a listless beginning.
"We didn't come out with a purpose in the first half," said Lattimore, who carried the ball only three times in the first half before turning into a workhorse in the second. "It was really a team thing. We came out with that purpose in the second half, and we knew the inside zone was going to work. I did what I always do, just run hard, and the offensive line came together."
Both of Lattimore's touchdown runs came out of the Wildcat formation and punctuated a stellar high school career that left him as one of the top college prospects in the nation. He is expected to choose among South Carolina, Auburn, Penn State and Oregon on National Signing Day in Feburary.
Like Lattimore, Allen is one of the top recruits in the country and will probably play on offense at Alabama despite spending most of the day at safety during the Shrine Bowl. His touchdown run was the only time he touched the ball on offense during the game - and that play was run only once during this past week's practices.
But Allen said it was a needed score because South Carolina still had the time and talent to get a go-ahead or game-tying score had the ball gone over to the Sandlappers on downs.
"It was real big for the team," Allen said. "We had a lot of momentum up until that fourth down, so I'm just glad the coaches had confidence in me."
South Carolina now leads the series 40-29-4. This year's game, which will be broadcast via tape delay later this month on ESPNU, and related events raised nearly $1.25 million for Shriners Children's Hospitals.