True freshman tailback Ronnie McGill ran for a career-high 244 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, as the Tar Heels (2-8, 1-5 ACC) vented a season's worth of frustration to the delight of Carolina coaches, players and fans.
It was the most rushing yards by a Tar Heel since Natrone Means ran for 249 versus Maryland in 1992.
"It was great, because I know how much everybody else wanted it," McGill said. "I wasn't here last year, but you know how the fans feel. You know that deep in your heart you want that win."
McGill's performance was the ninth-highest single-game total in school history and ranks as the third most by a freshman.
"He read the blocks perfectly," guard Jeb Terry said. "He got in the flow of the game and showed us what he could do."
Leading 42-27, Carolina appeared to have salted the game away after forcing the Deacs (5-5, 3-4 ACC) to turn the ball over on downs with 5:20 remaining.
But the unpleasant memories of disastrous home collapses versus Syracuse and Arizona State were still fresh. On a 3rd and 7 from their own 17-yard line, the Tar Heels served up a beautifully wrapped present in the form of an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Brad White.
In the blink of an eye, Wake had closed to within a touchdown and a two-point conversion with an eternal 4:59 still showing on the clock.
Bunting had seen enough. He was going to put the game in McGill's hands and live or die with his decision.
"When it starts getting into the fourth quarter, you start thinking that whatever you do is going to come up for big yards," McGill said. "I knew every time I got the ball that I was going to get a six- or seven-yard pop."
McGill carried 10 times on the drive, including a 3-yard carry on a 4th and 1 that enabled the Tar Heels to run out the clock.
"For us it's a mixed bag," Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said. "You come into the game worrying about Darian Durant, but you have to pick your poison against those guys. I guess my biggest disappointment was down the stretch when there was no doubt they were going to try and run the football and we were unable to stop them."
The game and the streak were finally over. And for the first time since Dec. 1, 2001, Carolina fans left Kenan Stadium grinning from ear-to-ear. This week there would be no heartbreak finish for the Tar Heels to digest, although there was plenty of drama.
Holding the upper hand 25-13 with 8:33 remaining in the third quarter, the Tar Heels used a handful of big special teams' plays and had come from behind to take the lead. UNC had already scored nine second half points before the Deacs' got their first turn with the ball, but an energized Carolina defense forced a three-and-out.
On the Tar Heels' next play from scrimmage, Ronnie McGill got free on the left side and ran 65 yards down to the Wake 12. While UNC would have to settle for a field goal, the Deacs were on the verge of getting blown out.
And the defense came up big again. The front seven began to stop a running game that had its way in the first half. UNC went on to kill Wake's next drive near midfield, thanks to excellent coverage by cornerback Michael Waddell on a deep pass attempt to Jason Anderson.
But a deep punt by Ryan Plackemeier pinned UNC back, and a subsequent 29-yard Wooldridge punt gave Wake the ball in Carolina territory. However Doug Justice forced Willie Idelette to fumble and Larry Edwards recovered. McGill later scored his final touchdown from 34 yards out.
"Don McCauley came up to me after the game and said, ‘It's about time you started giving [McGill] the ball,'" UNC coach John Bunting said. "Ronnie reminds me of Don in many different ways. Not only is he a tough, hard-nosed slashing-type runner, but also he has the same similar-type personality. He's very humble, a great kid and a great team player.
"Ronnie McGill is a great football player."
Now the only question remaining was whether or not Carolina could hold long enough to preserve its three-touchdown lead.
The Deacs quickly struck early in the fourth on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Nick Burney. They put up another touchdown on a 1-yard keeper by quarterback Cory Randolph. The 5-play, 80-yard drive took just 1:11.
But a 23-yard rush by McGill carried the Tar Heels across midfield, and tensions would soon ease off considerably. After a personal foul penalty put UNC back, Durant found Mike Mason down the middle for a 45-yard touchdown strike.
It was a "stutter" rout that broke the true freshman Mason free for his second receiving and fourth touchdown of the year.
"I knew [the defender] would bite," Mason said smiling. "Everybody bites on that play."
With Durant's 147 yards passing, he became the first Tar Heel to throw for over 2,000 yards in two seasons. But as each passing game seems to yield records for Durant, the conference win at home was the best honor he's had bestowed on him all year.
After the game, he lauded the performance of the running game and the blocking of the veteran offensive line.
"The [offensive linemen] have shown their potential all year," Durant said. "We got so far behind in a couple of games, that we couldn't show how well we could run the ball. In the close games we've had, we've been able to run the ball effectively. Our offensive line is a mature group."
Tackle Brian Chacos went down with a minor knee strain to his right leg and did not return to the game.