But the clock wasn't winding, and although the scoreboard read "UNC 30, N.C. State 30," that turned out to be a wicked prevarication, perhaps brought on by pre-game hex orchestrated by John Bunting's wife, Dawn.
Instead, after several attempts, finally the Kenan Stadium clock operator corrected the score back to 30-24.
"I didn't think he scored," Larry Edwards said. "I thought he was short, too. I think the official made a good call."
Television replays following the game seemed to defend the referee's decision.
Still, the Wolfpack would get one more opportunity, this time from the 1. But this time Khalif Mitchell knocked the ball away from McLendon, who was trying to stretch the ball over the goal line. Kareen Taylor then recovered the ball in the air, and all UNC had to do was kneel down on one play and let the celebration commence.
On a dramatic goal line stand that will be remembered for years, North Carolina stunned No. 25 N.C. State, 30-24, leaving Tar Heel fans in unbridled elation, and the Wolfpack fans howling.
There is no instant replay in college football at this time, and rarely when a touchdown is called, is it reversed.
"It was not an overrule," referee Jim Knight clarified following the game. "The line judge, Rick Page, saw the runner's knee down before the ball crossed the goal line plane. He relayed that information to me and that was how the play was ruled."
But Bunting, though delighted the tying points had been taken down, wondered why the Wolfpack got another opportunity at all.
"Fortunately, [the refs] did a good enough job to get it right," Bunting said. "But I'm kind of disappointed that they stopped the clock, because they didn't have any timeouts."
On a side note, it was Knight who suffered a massive heart attack while officiating a UNC-Virginia game on Sept. 27, 1997.
There was little, if any bemoaning over the call from the State camp.
"I really thought the play before was not good," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. "All I know is that six points were taken off the board. You know what? If we'd have walked in, we wouldn't have this, so let's go on."
Carolina, which travels to undefeated Utah next Saturday, improved to 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the ACC, while N.C. State fell to 3-2 and 2-1.
"It wasn't the Super Bowl, but it's one of the bigger and better victories I've been around here," Bunting said. "It's a tribute to our players and coaches. We hung in there, we kept believing and we never gave up.
The Tar Heels' defense still surrendered 577 yards, but came up big when it counted. The UNC defense was solid at times, but more importantly, it was opportunistic. Late in the third quarter and with the Tar Heels clinging to a 20-16 lead, no play may have been bigger than Edwards' interception of a tipped pass and his 54-yard return down to the Pack 3.
One play later, Darian Durant found tight end Jon Hamlett in the back of the end zone to extend Carolina's lead to 27-16.
"That was probably the biggest play of the game, except for the final one," Bunting said of Edwards' pick.
The score marked Durant's first three-touchdown pass performance since the Heels' 47-34 loss in Raleigh last season.
"Coach [Gary] Tranquill told us all week that our offense was good, but our passing sucked," said Durant, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 192 yards.
But State was not done, and quickly rolled 80 yards in five plays, taking just 1:27 off the clock, scoring on a 3-yard run by Bobby Washington. Washington drug Mahlon Carey with him into the end zone, and on the subsequent the two-point conversion try, Washington appeared to be trapped in the backfield, but then carried Kareen Taylor and Hilee Taylor with him over the goal line as well.
The Wolfpack was within a field goal and with an eternal 9:44 left to play. Desperately needing a time-sustaining offensive drive, UNC went to work with a new backfield combination, Madison Hedgecock running behind Rikki Cook. The Wallburg, N.C. senior quickly sawed off 16 yards – the longest run of his career. Then he barreled over the middle for four more.
Hedgecock, though he wore the same number, didn't represent the second coming of Mike Voight, though his running was as effective as it had to be.
Wait a minute, maybe the "Space Cowboy" had been reincarnated. On a huge 4th and 1 at the N.C State 37, Hedgecock upped his single-carry rushing record on a 25-yard run down to the State 12.
"It was a whole lot of fun for me to get the ball," Hedgecock said. "I was reliving my high school days. Late in the game I was thinking about all the players who have played with me, all the alumni, thinking ‘We've just got to win this for them.'"
But Carolina would have to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Connor Barth, who earlier kicked a 50-yarder – the longest of his short collegiate career. But the offense had not quite finished the job, leaving UNC's much-maligned defense to save the game.
"Our motto is ‘Get better every series,'" said Mitchell. "Every time you get out there, take it up a level. No one got their heads down. I didn't see one head down so that gave me a lot of energy."
Behind Lewis' 79 first half rushing yards and a 23-yard scoring toss to Jesse Holley, UNC was out in front 13-6 with five minutes left before halftime.
Joe Deraney's third field goal cut the score to 13-9, and then the Tar Heels were forced to punt it right back.
After Brian Rackley forced a fumble (recovered by Edwards) and stopped a State drive, it looked like Carolina had dodged a bullet. Yet, the Tar Heels couldn't move it either. And the Wolfpack, clicking on all offensive cylinders, marched 64 yards in seven plays to retake the lead on a McLendon 1-yard touchdown run. Deraney's extra point made the score 16-13 with 45 seconds left in the third quarter.
With the Heels facing third and one to start the fourth, Hedgecock bounced off tackle for first down yardage. Then one play after he made a miraculous completion to Holley, barely converting a crucial third down, Durant found Adarius Bowman down the right sideline for a 46-yard touchdown pass.
McLendon was a load with 117 rushing yards, but for the first time in 12 games in the series, the team that ran for more yards didn't win. More decisive to the game's outcome was that UNC came up with three turnovers, while State forced none.
So for now, UNC has once again bounced up off the mat and the footing under Bunting's job foundation seems a little more secure. It may be a while before Carolina experiences another football victory, but ‘Round Six' is over, and the Tar Heels have given their fans bragging rights for a region.
"We might just surprise a couple of people," Bunting said.