“I knew I had to catch that one,” Holley said. “I had no other choice but to catch it in the end zone and get this one over for the seniors.”
The play’s execution cut the heart out of a Wake Forest (4-6, 1-5) comeback effort, and kept the Tar Heels’ bowl hopes alive with a 31-24 victory Saturday at Groves Stadium.
“To see us come back and win this ball game in the end, spoke for the coaching staff and the team holding tough,” UNC coach John Bunting said.
Against then fourth-ranked Miami, the Tar Heels positioned themselves for a game-winning field goal. A week later versus No. 18 Virginia Tech, Carolina had a third-down opportunity at a win or tie ended by a Hokies’ sack.
Recent history would soon repeat itself.
A team such as Carolina, that could compete against ranked teams like the Hurricanes and VPI, should be able to come back and knock off the second-to-last place team in its conference. Yet the pesky Deacs, which never allows themselves to get rolled up by anybody, came from two touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter to tie the score at 24-24 on the second of two consecutive Chris Barclay touchdowns.
And, once again, the Tar Heels held possession with one last chance left to affect the final outcome – and this time they left no room for doubt.
In the end, Durant stood tall, shaking off last week’s disappointing finish to be the difference maker in this one.
“I’m just trying to enjoy this college moment right now,” Durant said after completing 18 of 36 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
Carolina only needs a win next Saturday at Duke to take control of its postseason destiny.
What started as a season with Bunting in a precarious position fighting for his collegiate coaching life, has now become a year that Tar Heel fans may never forget.
“Bunting is a great coach and we don’t want to be the downfall of the team,” Chad Scott said. “I could not think of anyone better to coach this football program.”
For the third time this season, Wake cornerback Marcus McGruder returned an interception for a touchdown – an ACC record – and the most recent turned the momentum of the game. Up 10-3 early in the third quarter and deep in his own territory, UNC quarterback Durant tried to find Holley underneath. But Holley tipped the pass under stiff coverage and McGruder took the deflection 21 yards for the score.
“It didn't look good at one point and they did a terrific job of rallying around each other,” Bunting said. “They knew it would take four quarters to beat this football team. Wake has been in every game that they have played and they did a heck of a job getting themselves back in the game.”
Carolina easily lost the third quarter a week earlier, giving up 17 points in the quarter to the Hokies. But the Tar Heels easily owned it this time around.
A 34-yard reception by Derrele Mitchell down to the Deacs’ 3 on UNC’s next possession, more than made up for some previous drops.
“I felt like I had a good game today,” said Mitchell, who caught three passes for 45 yards. “It could have been better but I made the big plays when it counted. This was a big game for us and a bowl game situation for us. I am just glad that we won.”
Two plays later, on a play that perhaps personified the will of two UNC seniors; Durant couldn’t find a receiver and kept it, only to be immediately met by a host of defenders at the line of scrimmage. But Durant, who was quickly aided by a mammoth Jason Brown-led blocking surge, drove himself backwards into the end zone.
The Tar Heels had a 17-10 lead, and a subsequent three-and-out defensive stand would give Carolina the ball back.
Another Wake three-and-out, and its busiest player, Ryan Plackemeier, was punting from his own end zone. A 21-yard return by Trimane Goddard gave Carolina the ball at the Wake 33. Following a 20-yard run by Scott that got it down to the Deacs’ 1, and a touchdown reception by Justin Phillips one play later put UNC up 24-10 with 13 seconds to play in the third.
“This loss is tougher for us because it is further down the line,” Wake coach Jim Grobe said. “It is a win that we really needed to progress to the next level. We played well today but not well enough.”
In the beginning...after an exchange of punts, the Tar Heels appeared to be establishing their rushing attack. But after a short completion near midfield, Wake’s Eric King separated Mitchell from the ball, and Pierre Easley recovered it in midair.
The Deacs took over with a 1st and 10 at the UNC 38, but multiple penalties and the first-career sack by Doug Justice quickly turned it into a 3rd and 40. The defensive struggle – a “punt-fest” – continued throughout the first quarter, which ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
For the first time this year, the Tar Heels did not give up any first quarter points; and after 15 minutes, Carolina had allowed just 42 total yards of offense.
Scott started at tailback and struggled to find running room early, but danced his way to 70 yards and a touchdown later.
“We got off to a slow start, but we made a lot of adjustments in the second half,” Scott said. “On plays that we were hitting it quick, we were able to get some good runs. We came out and pounded it in the second half.”
Ronnie McGill, who rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s meeting between the two teams, saw his first action since re-injuring an ankle at Utah a month earlier. He would leave with a bruised hip after just one carry of four yards, before he broke off what would have been a 56-yard run in the second half, had it not been for a UNC procedure penalty that nullified the play.
Any questions concerning McGill’s health were quickly answered, as the sophomore finished with 33 yards on eight carries.
But it was Jacque Lewis – 56 yards on three rushes – who made the first statement of the game on a 48-yard run in the second quarter.
The play set up a 1st and 10 at the Wake 14, but the Tar Heels were forced to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Connor Barth and led 3-0 with 9:08 left before half.
On the drive, Jarwarski Pollock appeared to be knocked out and left the game.
A squib kickoff and return gave the Deacs excellent field position and a nine-play, 57-yard drive ensued. After Justice stopped Barclay cold on a 3rd and goal from the Carolina 1, Plackemeier tied the score, 3-3.
“We did what it took,” Justice said. “Now we must keep it up.”
Then, just before half, the Tar Heels quickly moved to set up a go ahead field goal attempt. But it was a fake, and holder Jared Hall rolled right and found Madison Hedgecock for nine yards and first down. Scott then scored from nine-yards out, with Barth kicking an extra point to give Carolina a 10-3 lead heading to intermission.