Almost every time they found themselves on the ropes, either needing a third down stop defensively or a fourth down conversion to keep its final drive alive, the Tar Heels (1-7, 0-5 ACC) responded.
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Joe Dailey's longest pass completion of the season – a 44-yarder to Hakeem Nicks with 41 seconds left – electrified 49,000 emotional fans at Kenan Stadium.
But Dailey and the Tar Heels faltered on their next three chances.
On 1st-and-goal from the 3, Wake's defense snuffed out a quarterback sneak call, as Dailey stumbled and fell three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Dailey then rushed the offense for a clock stopping spike on 2nd down.
"We wanted to spike the football and give us two shots into the end zone," Bunting said. "That was the plan we talked about."
Then on 3rd down from the 6, he delivered a strike into the awaiting arms of Wake linebacker Jon Abbate, who was stationed three yards deep in the west end zone. By the time Abbate had finished removing the ribbons and bows from the gift-wrapped pass, he had whittled the clock down to 11 seconds.
From there, all Deacs' quarterback Riley Skinner had to do was kneel down to secure Wake Forest (7-1, 3-1) its best season start since 1979.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said, "We really were planning for overtime, and I thought that's what was going to happen. I don't know what John [Bunting] had in mind."
It was never really clear who Dailey was looking for. Holley thinks he was closest.
"I believe so," Holley said. "I wasn't quite sure where (Jon) Hamlett was at, but I believe that one was going to me."
Dailey explained, "Initially it was a double-move by our inside three-by-one receiver, which is our tight end, he got jammed on the line of scrimmage and our inside guy was Jesse Holley, who made a double-move, and I was trying to stick it on him, inside tight. Sure enough the MIKE linebacker ran underneath it, he made a really good play."
The Tar Heels took a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Deacs were in the middle of a 15-play, 56-yard drive that culminated in a 41-yard field goal by Sam Swank with 14:14 to play.
On UNC's ensuing possession, fullback Nick Starcevic fumbled and Wake safety Josh Gattis recovered at the Tar Heels' 39 with 2:06 remaining. Following a lengthy ruling in the instant replay booth, the play stood. And on the very next play, Skinner rolled right and found wide receiver Kenneth Moore on post route for a touchdown.
Carolina approached another figurative crossroads early in the second quarter when, trailing 14-7, Shelton Bynum sacked Skinner on a 3rd-and-5 near midfield.
Had the Deacs – the conference leader in red zone efficiency – moved the chains, the fragile early UNC momentum sparked by an emotional week would have likely shattered under the pressure of another Wake score.
Instead, Carolina marched 72 yards on nine plays, and set up a game-tying Connor Barth conversion with a 1-yard touchdown run by Ronnie McGill. The senior tailback ran for a season-high 119 yards on 29 tries, however he managed just 11 yards on four carries in the final decisive quarter.
"Ronnie played extremely well," Bunting said. "That's two weeks in a row. He's a powerful, running back with tremendous amount of heart and soul. We had going what we wanted in the first half and I wanted to come out in the second half and do some of the same things."
Dailey, in a two-series-apiece platoon with Cam Sexton at quarterback, completed 13-of-19 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown – a one-yarder to Andre Barbour, who started his first game at tight end.
But Dailey also completed two passes to Wake defenders to raise his season interception total to seven.
Sexton was 6-of-10 for 80 yards.
The two UNC quarterbacks have now combined for 15 interceptions, while the defense has managed just one.
The Tar Heels' league-worst turnover margin has grown to minus-14.
Nicks (3 recs., 84 yards), Holley (4-42) and Brooks Foster (4-49) led the Tar Heels' receiving corps.
The much-maligned Carolina defense held Wake to 289 total yards, the fewest allowed since giving up just 244 in a 35-10 loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2.
Next week the Tar Heels travel to 11th ranked Notre Dame (7-1), 38-14 winners over Navy on Saturday.
"We aren't just going to bail out just because we lost another game," UNC defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy said. "We're still going to continue to try to win as best as possible. We know we've got Notre Dame next week. We come in tomorrow, we watch film, we're going to get prepared for them."