The Tar Heels were 4-17 following their 2001 Peach Bowl championship. And coming off a 59-21 monumental setback at Maryland a week earlier, figurative wolves were beginning to encircle the veteran college and pro coach at his alma mater.
“I’m happy for him and the team is happy for him,” Mike Mason said. “It meant a lot, because we had been losing off the mistakes that we had been making. This game, it seemed like a lot of stuff went our way.”
Along with a spectacular performance by tailback Ronnie McGill, what made it so special was, well, special teams.
“Wake Forest is a very good football team,” Bunting said. “To see us block a couple of kicks and see all the hard work we put into that pay off is a big plus.”
The Tar Heels actually blocked three kicks in the game – a school record. They also recovered two fumbles off punt returns. All were huge in both keeping the Deacs off the scoreboard and setting up Carolina points.
Wake took the opening kickoff and drove 59 yards on 13 plays, but the drive stalled at the UNC 13-yard line. It appeared that Wake would take an early 3-0 lead, but Michael Waddell blocked Matt Wisnosky’s field goal attempt.
“Wake’s field goal protection is a lot different from other teams’ – they’re ends really reach inside,” Waddell said. “I knew if I could get a good jump, I could come off the side and make something happen.”
It wasn’t long before Carolina would exploit the Deacs’ field goal unit again.
Still in the first quarter and with no score, Wake drove into Carolina territory, but the Tar Heels blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt. Jonas Seawright that got a piece of the ball, registering his third blocked kick of the year.
Then UNC got its third big play on special teams, when Wake’s Willie Idelette muffed a line drive punt by David Wooldridge. Ronnie McGill recovered the carom giving UNC 1st and 10 at the Deacs’ 22.
“The guys that we have on special teams bust their butts to do what they’ve got to do,” Mason said.
The Wake offense held the ball over twice as long than UNC’s in the first quarter, and the attrition began to wear on the Carolina defense.
Two personal foul calls against the Tar Heels helped sustain the Deacs’ first scoring drive. Barclay’s 1-yard touchdown run capped a 13-play, 81-yard march to give Wake a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Three plays later, Durant found Jacque Lewis for a 10-yard touchdown pass, and Carolina tied the score at 7-7 on Dan Orner’s extra point with 7:45 left before halftime.
Wake quickly took back the momentum on a 52-yard touchdown pass from Randolph to Anderson. However the UNC crowd got right back into it when Waddell blocked the extra point attempt and Lionell Green scooped up the ball and raced 91 yards for a Carolina two-point conversion.
UNC then sustained its best offensive drive to that point – eight plays, 69 yards – that culminated in a 6-yard touchdown run by McGill. McGill’s fifth time in the end zone this season sent the Tar Heels to the locker room leading at the half, 16-13.
In the second half, UNC punted the ball away to Eric King. But Wallace right hit him and forced a fumble that was recovered by D.J. Walker.
Up to that point, Wake had dominated the Tar Heels both on the ground and through the air. The kick blocks and turnovers enabled UNC to stay in the game and keep the Deacs’ honest with its rushing game.
“It’s a thing we work on every week,” Lionell Green said. “We knew we could make a big play and we got some of those big plays today.”
“A lot of people might not think so, but we go into every game thinking we have an edge on special teams,” Waddell added.
Wake still put up 562 yards of total offense to Carolina’s 475, but this time the Tar Heels did what it took to win the football game at the end.
“It means a lot,” Darian Durant said. “We haven’t won a home game in two years. To be able to win a home game makes it a lot more special. But we just have to put it behind us now. Enjoy it tonight, but then get ready for Georgia Tech.”