RALEIGH – They may have bent, but they didn't plan on breaking.
When North Carolina cornerback Michael Waddell and linebacker Quincy Monk stopped N.C. State's Troy Graham one yard short of a first down with 28 seconds left in the game, the Tar Heels' stingy defense denied Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack one last time. And in the process, Carolina stripped off another layer of an ugly 0-3 start that defined who they were eight days ago, but no longer as the Tar Heels defeated N.C. State, 17-9, before an energetic crowd of 51,500 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"We knew we would hold on because we are a strong team," Julius Peppers said. "We have been through a lot and knew we were going to get the job done."
Late in the game N.C. State moved from its own 20 to Carolina's 32 in less than two minutes and facing that fourth and seven trailing by eight. On the play, Rivers hit Graham over the middle where it appeared he might pick up the crucial first down. However, Monk and Waddell, who had defended the long ball well all afternoon, didn't allow Graham a second effort and the Wolfpack fell one yard short.
"We've got a great defense and I knew it would be hard for them to comeback," said tailback Andre Williams, who rushed for 75 yards on 23 carries. "N.C. State has a great offense but I knew our defense would stop them. They are physical and determined."
As key as Waddell's play was, the Heels as a team made similar stops all day, especially in the final period.
State got inside UNC's 35 three times in the final quarter yet came away with just three points, a 31-yard field goal by Adam Kiker with 10:38 left in the game for the final margin of 17-9.
The Wolfpack managed 156 yards of offense in the final quarter, including 153 by Rivers, who doubled his total (306 yards) for the day in the final period. State's sensational sophomore signal caller connected on passes of 21, 22, 26, 20, 31 and 26 yards in the quarter, the latter coming on a third and 22 four plays before the decisive stop.
"Well, sometimes we camo (camouflage) and blitz and leave a guy open," said UNC senior linebacker David Thornton. "We knew that was going to happen sometimes … but we just wanted to respond and make sure it didn't happen again."
As crucial as the defense not breaking was, perhaps the most encouraging development for Carolina came from a much-maligned offensive line. The Tar Heels gobbled up 195 yards on the ground on 49 attempts for an average 4.4 per carry, clearly their best output of the season. In the second half, UNC chewed up 124 yards but combined for just 39 on their pair of long scoring drives. Instead, the Heels used up clock on other possessions giving the team some much-needed balance.
Carolina's offense went three-and-out on just one second-half possession and turned the ball over on another. In a major turn of events from the first three games, UNC kept its defense off the field and by moving the chains just enough, won the field position battle. This proved to be pivotal in their success.
"It (field position) is huge," Peppers said. "Coach Bunting has said that we need to keep the ball so the defense can rest. Now the offense is out there moving the ball and it is not only allowing us to rest, but we can relax more and take more chances."
With the ground attack keeping State's fast defense honest, UNC quarterback Darian Durant (10-14, 128 yards) was able to use the pass to balance the attack, guiding Carolina to a pair of scores that saw them carve 11:15 total off the game clock on consecutive possessions.
Leading 7-6 at the half, the Heels started Ronald Curry at quarterback. But that possession stalled when he was sacked for an eight-yard loss.
An 18-yard punt by John Lafferty gave the Wolfpack at the ball on their own 44, but the Heels stopped State when NCSU coach Chuck Amato opted to go for it on fourth and two at Carolina's 22 when Rivers missed tight end Willie Wright over the middle.
On the ensuing possession, the Tar Heels marched 59 yards on 11 plays and extended their lead to 10-6 on a 36-yard field goal from Jeff Reed with 6:20 left in the third quarter.
After a quick three and out, UNC got the ball back and went to work again, this time moving 89 yards on 11 plays covering 6:16 and ending on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Durant to Kory Bailey, the senior's second of the day.
"He (Durant) gave me an audible signal and I ran a good route," said Bailey, who had five catches for 58 yards and a pair of scores.
In the first half, the Tar Heels failed to capitalize on exceptional field position and the good fortune of State's poor decision making.
UNC began four series in NCSU territory, was aided by a pair of N.C. State turnovers, three personal fouls and 66 yards in penalties overall by the Wolfpack but only scored seven points in the first 30 minutes.
Carolina's lone first-half score came after State's Sterling Hicks caught a pass from Rivers over the middle and fumbled after a being popped by Monk. Dexter Reid fell on the ball giving the Tar Heels a first down at the NCSU 27-yard-line with 8:57 left in the opening period.
On second and nine, Durant shed two would-be State tacklers and ran four yards to the 22. However, NCSU was flagged for a personal foul giving the Heels first down at the 11.
After Williams lost three yards off tackle, Durant found Bailey open in the top right corner of the end zone for a 14-yard scoring strike and a 7-0 lead.
Durant read the defense perfectly and rolling to the right found the Durham senior for only UNC's third first-half lead of the season.
"I definitely thought I was in," Bailey said. "It was big for us to point those points up early because they're at home, they got the crowd and to score first kind of negates the crowd and gives us a little edge and a little bit of momentum."
The Tar Heels improved to 2-3 on the season and 2-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. State fell to 2-1 and 0-1.