Just one game and two weeks removed from giving up a school-record 69 points at Louisville, Carolina held an opponent to its lowest scoring output since a 38-3 win at Clemson in 2001.
The 12 combined points marked the fewest points in a UNC football game since the Tar Heels beat Texas Tech in Lubbock, 9-3, on Sept. 13, 1980.
In a game they had to win in order to keep post-season hopes, or better, alive, the Tar Heels improved to 2-1 in the ACC and 3-3 overall.
Virginia fell to 4-3 and 2-3.
"I think a number of [our players] grew up today," John Bunting said. "They played physical, they played tough, they played hard and they played together."
With the offense unable to convert a successful rushing effort into but one touchdown – fullback Rikki Cook's first career touchdown, which came on a 2-yard pass reception – the Carolina defense was called on time and again to stop Marques Hagans and the Cavaliers, which were coming off a 26-21 upset of then fourth-ranked Florida State.
And UNC was up to the challenge. Carolina's defense came out stoked and never skipped a beat, holding UVa without a first down on its first four possessions. Then later in the decisive fourth quarter, the Tar Heels again shut down the Cavs – the biggest stop coming on an interception by Cedrick Holt at the UNC 36 with 1:23 remaining.
It was Holt's, and UNC's, second pick of the season, but it was the pass rush of Chase Page and a tip by Trimane Goddard that enabled Holt to put an end to Virginia's last legitimate threat at converting a game-winning field goal.
"[Hagans] was coming on a back side blitz, and the quarterback bootlegged out," Holt said. "He had to hold it a little longer than he wanted to, and he was scrambling and wanted to throw.
"Coaches say to keep running and not to stop on the play, so I just ran downfield. He threw it, Trimane jumped in the way and made the ball ricochet into the air. I just kept running and the ball hung in the air long enough for me to get the interception."
In what amounted to a grueling nail-biter in which field position would make all the difference, the Tar Heels amassed a season-high 172 rushing yards while holding the UVa to just 199 total yards. They hadn't held a team to such a miniscule total offense number since Wake Forest mustered just 162 in 2000.
"You saw speed on the defense today with the way we pursue," Bunting said.
But with Ronnie McGill (118 yards rushing) and Barrington Edwards (52 yards) feeding off each other, the UNC offense was able to do just enough to insure Hagans had to face a long field in almost all circumstances.
"To have [McGill and Edwards] compliment each other is terrific," Bunting said. "Ronnie has been around this program, he knows our running game inside out. Barrington had some big runs for us and he's going to continue to get carries."
Meanwhile, coming off a career-high 306-yard, two-touchdown passing performance against the Seminoles, Hagans was kept in check and turned in a season-low 109 passing yards.
"We couldn't get any consistency in our running game," UVa coach Al Groh said. "We weren't able to control the tempo that we would have liked from that respect."
In snapping a three-game losing streak to Virginia, the Tar Heels moved into a tie for second place in the ACC's Coastal Division with Miami (5-1, 2-1). UNC travels to face the sixth-ranked Hurricanes next Saturday. Kickoff at the Orange Bowl is set for 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by ABC.
"We are 2-1 in the ACC," Page said. "One game doesn't make a season. We have a tough schedule coming up, but if we play well like we know we can and continue to improve we have good things ahead."