The Tar Heels (2-5, 1-2 ACC) regrouped during a much needed bye week, after having faced three top-25 opponents in a span of four weeks. But despite the losing record, the UNC fan base has watched closely as this young and inexperienced program has developed and battled against ACC and non-conference heavyweights down to the final seconds, including a Hail Mary attempt that was batted down as time ran out two weeks ago in a 21-15 loss to then-No. 6 South Carolina.
"[Head coach] Butch [Davis] has got them playing really, really hard," Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said. "Their coaches are doing a really nice job coaching them. We've seen them improve every week. And they're playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, and every week they've shown improvement. I think the thing that jumps out at you is how talented they are, but as you watch them you see how much they've improved from week to week."
The Demon Deacons (5-2, 3-1 ACC) have won five straight, after narrow losses to No.2 Boston College and Nebraska to start the season. Quarterback Riley Skinner has completed over 70 percent of his passes in four of five games this fall, and red-shirt freshman Josh Adams has provided a spark to the Wake Forest running game, gaining 271 yards in consecutive victories over Florida State and Navy.
While the Demon Deacons are not flashy on either side of the ball, they are extremely opportunistic – Wake Forest leads the conference with 21 forced turnovers.
"They don't beat themselves," Davis said. "If you are going to win the game against Wake Forest, you are going to have to earn it. They are not going to give it to you. They're not going to have five or six turnovers and eight, 10, 12 penalties and always put themselves behind schedule."
Look no further than Wake's 24-17 victory over North Carolina last season at Kenan Stadium for an example of how the Demon Deacons find ways to win. Their first score came on a blocked punt, and then former-linebacker Jon Abbate intercepted a Joe Dailey pass in the end zone on the final play of the game to seal the win.
Grobe has excelled versus his in-state opponents, posting a 20-5 career mark in North Carolina and a 3-2 record against the Tar Heels. The Demon Deacons last in-state loss was on Nov. 13, 2004 – a 31-24 loss to UNC.
The Wake Forest players don't hide the fact that North Carolina represents one of their biggest rivals in all sports.
"Pretty much every ACC school we take pretty seriously, but since I've been here, North Carolina probably brings out the most folks and everyone really wants to win on both sides," safety Kevin Patterson said.
The Tar Heels worked on minimizing mistakes during their bye week, and Davis would not mind for his program to play similar to Wake Forest, in terms of fundamentals and playing smart.
"We have to be more efficient as a football team," Davis said. "We have to value and protect the football more on offense. We have to create more turnovers on defense. And we have to play much better on special teams in some areas and stop giving up some of the big plays."
North Carolina is ready to make a run at a bowl game during this final five game stretch, with a 4-1 record needed to play in the postseason. With center Scott Lenahan and wide receiver Brandon Tate back from injury, the Tar Heels believe they are healthy enough to do just that.
"Well you know they definitely have turned the corner and won five in a row," UNC wide receiver Greg Little said. "I feel like we these last five games we can do the same thing, if they can do it I know we can. I win on the road against a great team like Wake Forest would be just tremendous for our program."