However a fourth quarter fumble by Jacque Lewis at the Tech 14-yard line with the Tar Heels driving to retake the lead, cost them their turn on the scoring seesaw. With UNC unable to get a desperately needed defensive stop down the stretch, the Yellow Jackets pulled away to win, 41-24.
It was a familiar story - the defense's inability to stop the opposition when it counted meant defeat.
Down just 20-17 with 14:52 remaining in the game, Lewis had carried the ball for first down yardage and was looking for more when linebacker Keyaron Fox punched the ball out from behind and cornerback Reuben Houston picked up the freebie.
"I should have been prepared for that," said Lewis, who tallied 84 yards of offense rushing and receiving and also caught a touchdown pass. "I wasn't looking at it as a momentum thing; I was hoping the defense would bail me out at point."
It didn't. The Yellow Jackets (6-4, 4-3 ACC) drove 86 yards on 10 plays, scoring on a 26-yard reverse pass from Jonathan Smith to fellow wide receiver Nate Curry.
"We were trying to set that play up the whole game," Smith said.
Still, the Tar Heels (2-9, 1-6 ACC) answered quickly, needing just 2:18 to pull to within 27-24 on a 2-yard touchdown reception by Lewis.
Enter the Carolina defense, with hopes of giving its offense one more opportunity to catch up. But instead Tech drove 73 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead back to 10 points.
"We had an opportunity to make a play or two, and that's when we've got to do it," UNC coach John Bunting said.
The Tar Heels were unable to answer this time, and the UNC coaching staff chose not to go for it 4th-and-4 from its own 25 with just 3:29 showing on the clock. The decision backfired, as Smith returned David Wooldridge's punt 73 yards for a touchdown that sealed the victory for the Yellow Jackets.
"I wanted to see if we could go out there and stop them on a long field and get the ball back," Bunting said. "Offensively and on special teams – with the exception of that punt return – we outplayed them."
Daniels' ran for a career-high 241 yards on 36 carries, although each of the Yellow Jackets' four offensive touchdowns came via the pass.
"I can believe [the statistics], but I can't take the credit," Daniels said. "My offensive line did a great job."
"[Daniels] is as strong as a Mac truck running north-south," Tech head coach Chan Gailey added. "His heart is as big as Atlanta."
Quarterback Reggie Ball also ran for 53 yards, which kept the UNC defense off balance late in the game. Carolina went to the dressing room at halftime leading 14-10, but simply could not stop Daniels from getting almost five yards every time he touched the ball in the second half.
And when the Yellow Jackets felt they needed to switch up the play calling, Ball would find 10 yards by way of the bootleg.
"[Daniels] is a good running back, but in the second half when the quarterback came out running, that really kept us off guard," UNC defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas said.
Trailing 3-0, Carolina seemed headed for its second straight three-and-out to start the game. But a 11-yard completion to Derrele Mitchell extended the drive in which Durant would score on a bootleg from 1-yard out to give UNC an early lead. On the play, Durant was trapped in the backfield by two Tech defenders, but miraculously slipped the tackle and walked in the end zone.
Durant, who completed his first seven passes of the game, threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns.
"I'm not into moral victories," Durant said. "I feel like we didn't do enough offensively to win, and that's the bottom line."
A struggling offense doesn't have a better friend than the UNC defense (the Yellow Jackets entered the game last in ACC in total offense). From Tech's opening drive, its running game was a hot knife through the Tar Heels' butter. Like Maryland's Bruce Perry did two weeks ago, Daniels was getting five yards on each carry before ever encountering a defender.
However, the Tar Heels' pass coverage was solid and they were getting decent pressure on Ball. A no-call on apparent pass interference by Lionell Green held the Yellow Jackets to a field goal on their first possession, and a holding penalty crippled their chances the next time they had the ball.
"We've got to be able to take people on and maintain our gap control, stop big runs and get after the quarterback on the perimeter," Bunting said.
UNC was facing 2nd and long and up 7-3 midway through the second quarter when Durant threw over the middle looking for Pollock. The pass came out hot, caromed off Pollock and was picked out of the air by Tech's Reuben Houston, who returned the interception down to the UNC 29. Moments later, Daniels took a screen pass eight yards to put the Yellow Jackets back on top.
Michael Waddell took the ensuing kickoff at the goal line and was quickly smothered by Tech defenders. He then appeared to fumble the ball, but referees said Waddell's forward progress was stopped before the apparent turnover.
The Tar Heels capitalized on the break with a 9-play, 85-yard drive capped by a 2-yard touchdown pass from Durant to Bobby Blizzard. The key play came on a 44-yard run by Durant, as Carolina took a 14-10 lead to the locker room.
"It was a game of two halves," Bunting said. "Hopefully our kids will learn from this. We'll learn to be competitive and learn to be stronger."
The Tar Heels wind up the season next week at home against Duke (3-8, 1-6 ACC), in a game that will determine which team can avoid the 2003 ACC final regular season cellar.