The Tar Heels (2-9, 1-6 ACC) snapped a seven-game losing streak to avoid their first eight-game skid since losing 10 straight in 1989.
Outgoing coach John Bunting sandwiched his lackluster six-year head coaching run in between two of Carolina’s biggest home wins – a 41-9 mammoth upset of then-No. 6 Florida State in 2001 and his third-straight defeat of State (3-8, 2-7) and its bravado-wielding coach Chuck Amato.
After the game, the two quasi-enemies shared sincere condolences during their final midfield handshake.
“I wished him luck and he wished me luck, and he said he really meant it,” Bunting said. “I said that I appreciated that. Chuck was one of the guys that gave me a call after the announcement (of Bunting’s firing).”
When a State beat writer asked Amato if this game meant more to the Wolfpack fan base than any other, Amato confirmed, “I said that on Monday. You’re exactly right the way you worded that question.”
Connor Barth’s career-high 54-yard field goal – one-yard short of a school record – and his 37-yarder a series later put UNC up by two scores with 5:03 left in the third quarter.
“As soon as it left my foot, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Barth said. “I was just trying to help the team out as much as I could, and it was just awesome.”
Later, in the fourth quarter, Carolina chose to punt on a 4th-and-1 near midfield. Somewhat surprisingly the Tar Heels’ coaches had decided to put the game in the hands of the defense.
But it wasn’t until Melik Brown sacked State quarterback Daniel Evans and forced a fumble that fellow senior Brian Rackley recovered and returned two yards for a touchdown, before the Tar Heels could begin to rest easy.
The defense had a season-high four sacks for 31 yards.
“We had good pressure on the quarterback, we had great coverage and we just forced them to throw bad throws,” said senior safety Kareen Taylor, who had two interceptions, including the one that put the game away with 52 seconds to play.
Carolina held an opponent without a touchdown for the first time since a 7-5 win over Virginia in 2005. The Tar Heels have allowed 16 points in their last two games combined.
When time expired, the UNC players immediately hoisted their embattled coach on their shoulders for a short-lived victory ride.
“I wasn’t very comfortable with that,” Bunting said. “They tried to do it again, and I went into a fetal position on the field.”
Tailback Ronnie McGill said later the team had planned the event win or lose, “…But it sure felt better knowing we had won,” laughed McGill.
Along with the Tar Heels’ defense, Barth was the hero of the game, nailing three field goals to extend his season perfection to 9-for-9 on the year.
Carolina struck early and dominated the first quarter, jumping out to a 10-0 lead on the strength of two lengthy and time-consuming scoring drives. After 15 minutes, UNC had 11 first downs to zero for State. McGill had already gained 85 yards and scored from one-yard out, while quarterback Joe Dailey threw for 102 yards without an interception.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels’ defense held the Wolfpack to just 13 yards in that first quarter, and Taylor hauled in his second interception of the season.
However, State picked things up in the second quarter and balanced out the stat sheet while pulling to within 10-6 on two John Deraney field goals.
“If you can’t put the ball in the end zone it’s tough,” Amato said.
The Tar Heels wrap up the 2006 season when they travel to Duke (0-11, 0-7) next Saturday in Durham.