But Saturday, against their most bitter out-of-state conference rival, the Tar Heels' defense turned in one of the most memorable performances of this season, and their best win of 2005, edging the Cavaliers, 7-5.
How did that happen?
"They played with tremendous emotion," coach John Bunting said. "Really proud of what the defense did."
The story of Saturday's contest begins and very nearly ends with the UNC defense. The Cavaliers did not manage a first down until the second quarter, and for the entire game the Tar Heels yielded less than 200 yards for the first time since 2000. The Cavaliers' longest play from scrimmage was 13 yards and the five points yielded by the defense was the fewest since UNC beat Clemson in 2001, 38-3. The Tar Heel defense effectively ended the game when Cedrick Holt cradled in a Marques Hagans pass tipped by Trimane Goddard.
For a defense that yielded buckets of points to Louisville two weeks ago, it was a stunning performance. Hagans was third in the ACC in total offense coming into this game, personally accounting for 254 yards per contest, and also coming off a career performance against the Seminoles just a week ago.
Hagans' stat lines for Saturday? He completed 14-of-28 passes, well below his career completion percentage of 62 percent, passed for an anemic 109 yards, and rushed eight times for 26 yards. What accounts for this reversal of performances by the UNC defense?
Start with emotion. Incapable of being quantified and showing up on the stat sheet, emotion undeniably played a part in Saturday's game. Then add smarts. The Tar Heel defense played as disciplined and intelligent as they have in any contest in recent memory.
"We were just playing smart and not making foolish mistakes and penalties. We made them earn every yard they got." Holt said.
Several individuals on the defense turned in impressive performances. Shelton Bynum had perhaps the best game of his career, making four tackles and coming up with a huge sack. Tommy Richardson and Larry Edwards both notched double-digit tackles to lead the defense in that stat. Kareen Taylor tossed Hagans to the ground for a sack at a pivotal moment in the game. Jeff Longhany tipped away a pass that would have certainly been a touchdown. Goddard's tip, which led to Holt's interception, sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.
But as impressive as the individual efforts on the defense were, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts. They played smart, and they played with emotion – and the result speaks for itself.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the 2005 Tar Heel offense has been their inability, except in the contest against NC State, to run the ball effectively. While Matt Baker has exceeded expectations at quarterback, the North Carolina passing attack has not been effective enough to compensate for a lackluster running game.
Saturday was different. Ronnie McGill, playing in only his second game of the season after coming back from an injury, rushed 23 times for 118 yards, while Barrington Edwards had 13 carries for 57 yards.
"Early in the first quarter, Ronnie, Rikki Cook, and I talked about how we needed to bond more as a unit and how we needed to come out as a one-two punch," Edwards said following the game.
It was a very effective one-two punch on a day when the Tar Heels were unable to get anything going in the passing game. As a result, Saturday was a day when the Tar Heel offense did not have to rely solely on the arm of Baker. While the defense gets much of the credit for this win, the 172 yards of rushing offense by the Tar Heels was nearly as critical. When the Tar Heels run the ball well, they give themselves a chance to win.
It was obviously far from a dominating offensive performance. The Tar Heels only managed 270 yards of total offense, only 16 first downs, and scored only once. But in what was essentially a game of field position, McGill and Edwards did enough to move the chains and force the Cavaliers into long field situations. Only once did the Cavaliers start a drive inside Tar Heel territory.
Drawing conclusions from one game, particularly when discussing the Tar Heels, is risky business. But if the Tar Heels have discovered an effective ground game, they may win more games than expected from this point forward.
Rather than a complete analysis of special teams, one play in particular deserves the spotlight this week.
When Brandon Tate called for a fair catch on the five-yard line with 4:50 left in the fourth quarter, it was time for UNC fans to be concerned that Virginia might still carry the day. When UNC could not move the ball past the eight-yard line, the concern intensified. When Emanuel Byers returned the ensuing punt 13 yards inside Tar Heel territory to the 38-yard line with 3:04 remaining, Saturday was shaping up as a heart-breaking last minute defeat for the Tar Heels
Had it not been for some suspect play calling by Virginia and outstanding defensive play by the Tar Heels, Tate's fair catch may well have cost UNC a victory and the tone of this article might be very much different. Objectively, all the Cavaliers had to do at that point of the game was to call three quarterback sneaks, line up for a Connor Hughes field goal, and escape Kenan Stadium with a win.
Hughes might have missed the field goal, certainly. The mental error by Tate, however, gave the Cavaliers an excellent shot at pulling off the victory. Tate is a true freshman, and true freshmen typically make more than their share of mistakes. Tate has also been a positive force as a return man for the Tar Heels this season, and one of the bright spots on special teams.
While the Tar Heels get credit for smart play in many aspects of Saturday's game, Tate's fair catch was not a smart play. Fortunately for North Carolina, Tate's mistake did not prove to have an effect on the outcome on the game, but eliminating these types of mistakes is critical for a team that has little margin for error.
Winning a game over your chief out-of-state conference rival, pulling to .500 for the season, turning in the best defensive performance in years, resurrecting a dormant running game – all are very good things. The question is whether UNC can build on this performance and – against all odds – go on to win enough games to become bowl eligible.
The answer is, of course they can. The Tar Heels at this point control their own destiny in terms of bowl eligibility. That is more than many pundits thought would be possible at this point of the season. But for the Tar Heels to make a bowl game a reality, they must maintain the keys to Saturday's win – playing smart and with emotion.