It was a surprising, perhaps even shocking, outcome but one person wasn't surprised at all. "Didn't surprise me," Tar Heel head coach John Bunting said to the press following the game.
There is a lot to talk about the North Carolina defensive side of the ball, and lot of it is bad. But two defensive plays determined the outcome of this game, and that's a remarkable statement to make about the much-maligned UNC defense.
With the Tar Heels nursing a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack had moved to the North Carolina 43-yard line. N.C. State quarterback Jay Davis passed to the right, where sophomore Melik Brown got a mitt on the pass and tipped it in the air. Sophomore Larry Edwards plucked the ball out of the air and raced 54-yards down the sideline to the Pack three-yard line. Durant would hit true sophomore Jon Hamlett on the next play for a touchdown.
By now interested observers have read about the "touchdown, no touchdown," play. On second-and-goal from the three, the Pack's T.A. McLendon took the handoff and scored a touchdown - or so one referee signaled. But the line judge saw that McLendon's knee hit the turf before he broke the plane of the goal line with the ball, and the Pack instead faced third-and-goal from about a half-yard or less.
Good call or bad call? It shouldn't have mattered because with fourteen ticks of the clock left, all N.C. State had to cover was another half-yard to secure another comeback for the "Cardiac Pack." Under Chuck Amato, last-second victories have become commonplace for N.C. State.
It shouldn't have mattered because the Pack's T.A. McLendon had bullied the UNC run defense all evening. "Touchdown Anytime" had only to add a half-yard to the 120-plus yards he had already rolled up against the Heels. The Pack was a virtual lock to walk out of Kenan Stadium with a 31-30 victory.
Instead, true freshman Khalif Mitchell got penetration off the snap and leveled T.A. McLendon in the backfield. Game over.
It is worthy of note that the defensive heroes on these two game-changing plays were true sophomores and freshmen. That helps to explain the rest of the defensive story.
The youthful Heels were pushed around for much of the evening on defense, yielding an incredible 304 yards rushing and 577 yards of total defense. Jay Davis completed 22 of 28 attempts. McLendon and Reggie Davis registered huge chunks of yardage as the Pack recorded 30 first downs. The best that can be said is that the Heels managed to force three field goals after the Pack had entered the red-zone. That's not inconsequential, but the defense clearly has to get much better to have a chance for more surprising wins.
But when the game was on the line, the defense delivered. And that statement is a mouthful.
The Tar Heel faithful have been waiting on their senior quarterback, Darian Durant, to have a "Durant-like" game since the start of the season. They got that game against N.C. State.
It was arguably the best game of his career, even counting several 300-yard passing performances, because Durant did not make a bad decision all evening. It was arguably the best because not only did Durant play well, the Heels won the game. Too often great performances by Durant have been tarnished by losses.
When there was nothing there, Durant would toss the ball harmlessly out-of-bounds. Meanwhile Durant tossed three touchdown passes and otherwise directed the Tar Heel offense to 356 yards of total offense and 30 points against a defense that previously only yielded an average of 193 yards and 14.8 points per game.
Then there is the Madison Hedgecock story. If there isn't another "feel good" story for the Tar Heels this season, this one ought to satisfy their yearly quota all on its own. With Rikki Cook lining up at fullback, Hedgecock had a star turn as an unlikely 250-pound-plus tailback. He made the difference in this game offensively.
Hedgecock, on ten carries, netted 72 yards, often dragging Pack defenders along with him. He converted a critical fourth-and-one, and rumbled for 25 yards in the process. Since the senior fullback had only four previous carries in his career and gotten only 12 yards for his troubles, the Pack defensive brain trust never saw this one coming.
Not only was Hedgecock effective in the ground game, but his effectiveness meant that Durant was able to buy some time in play-action. The Pack actually had to worry about whether Hedgecock might get the hand-off.
Hedgecock got his chance because of injuries to UNC tailbacks Ronnie McGill and Chad Scott, but you have to think that even when these players are healthy, Hedgecock might just get his number called more often at tailback the rest of this year.
Durant and Hedgecock weren't the only Tar Heel notables on offense, as several players had their moments under the Kenan Stadium lights. Receiver Jesse Holley made a critical recovery of a fumbled Adarius Bowman catch that had provided crucial yards. The offensive line played well against an aggressive Pack defense that had 16 sacks coming into this game. Jacque Lewis ripped off a 53-yard run against a defense that had been yielding a little over a hundred yards rushing a game.
The UNC offense did stall in the third quarter, getting nothing worthy of mention in that stanza. It is a concern that in several games, the offense looks like it has had a heavy meal during halftime and wants a nap.
But in the end, the storyline on offense was that offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill conceived an excellent game plan and the Tar Heel players executed that plan well.
Special Teams and Turnover Margin
North Carolina played a game without a single snafu on special teams. That fact ought to challenge for the story of the game.
Connor Barth nailed a fifty-yard field goal that would have been good had it been a fifty-five-yarder. David Wooldridge punted well, coverage teams were good, there weren't silly penalties that yielded improved field position, no fumbles – and the list goes on.
The N.C. State fumble at the end of the game was meaningless, but the interception by Edwards was at least as big as the final stop on McLendon by Mitchell. The other Pack turnover qualifies as another game-changing play. The Pack had driven 49-yards from their own 28 and appeared headed for another third quarter touchdown when Brian Rackley forced a fumble by the Pack's Reggie Davis. Larry Edwards recovered the fumble on North Carolina's twenty-yard line.
North Carolina didn't move the ball from there and was forced to punt the ball back, but the Pack lost precious time off the clock with which to mount their comeback. Three NCSU turnovers to the Tar Heels' zero meant the difference in this game.
The Tar Heels travel to Utah to face the undefeated Utes (5-0), who are thinking "BCS Bowl," and defeating the Heels is just their next step towards that goal.
The Tar Heels may have even more to prove – that they can compete with a top ten team (Utah is rated 10th in the Coaches' poll this week).