"Our kids started to understand last year in that last, three-four-five minutes of the Virginia Tech game how important it is to finish and close in the last seven minutes of a game, and the better you can run the football, the better opportunity that you have to do that," head coach Butch Davis said.
It is something that the Tar Heels have talked about and worked on – and they obviously have gotten better at it. A couple of key Tar Heels credited the off-season conditioning program.
"We try not to think about it out there on the field," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We've pointed it out in seasons past that we've got to do a better job in the fourth quarter. In these past two games in the fourth quarter we've been able to absolutely control the line of scrimmage and just move the football down the field at will. The hard work this off-season has really paid off."
Running back Johnny White added, "During training camp we'd talk about stuff like that, how many games we lost in the fourth quarter when we had the lead and stuff, and that was the main focus of our summer conditioning – to be a more fit and more physical team so we could win those games in the fourth quarter."
Conditioning aside, three major factors aided the fourth quarter effort by the Tar Heels; 1) Clemson shooting itself in the foot not once, but twice on third down during UNC's fourth quarter touchdown drive, 2) a fresh offensive line in the fourth quarter, and 3) most importantly, an incredible effort by White.
On one third down converted thanks to a Clemson miscue, wide receiver Jheranie Boyd was held by Clemson's Bryon Maxwell, though Boyd intimated that this was commonplace for the Tigers' defensive backfield.
"They were holding us all night, so I guess that's where the holding call came from, the guy was pulling my jersey from behind," Boyd said.
Every time you think you've got a handle on the offensive line configuration, it changes, and the line doesn't tire as a result. In the fourth quarter this week, Carl Gaskins got most of the snaps at left tackle, while Travis Bond played at right guard. Last week, James Hurst and Alan Pelc, respectively, manned those two spots.
"We're fresh going into the fourth quarter," offensive tackle Mike Ingersoll said. "(Rotating the linemen) has proven to be an asset, it really has. We've embraced it and it is really paying dividends, particularly in the fourth quarter."
Yates added, "We can play, six-seven-eight-nine guys in the offensive line and switch in and out without any change really. I think that has helped us out in the last two games rushing the ball in the fourth quarter."
All of the above factored into the win, but it would not have been possible without the play of White, a fifth-year running back - he did everything. He ran the ball for 89 yards on 22 carries (the most rushing yards on either team) and he led all UNC receivers with six catches for 90 yards, including a critical third-down catch in the fourth quarter. On the final drive, White touched the ball on every play, and stayed in bounds to keep the clock running.
"You just watch him, all of you have been here for five games and that kid is running his heart out," Davis said. "It says a lot about him. He keeps pounding and pounding and pounding and eventually he'll find a crease and find a crack, and bounce out the back door and make some really good runs."
During his career, White has played running back, cornerback, slot receiver, kick returner, and special teams gunner – tonight he added a new title in the fourth quarter – offensive coordinator. "We pretty much asked Johnny what he wanted to run, and we ran those plays because he sees the field awesome, he knows what's going on out there," Yates said.
White explained, "The coach sort of asked me what plays I think were running pretty good, and just told him and he agreed."
And the results speak for themselves.