RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina started fast and then had to survive a push from NC State, thanks to turnovers and a stubborn rival that simply refused to quit.
While it might be easy to nitpick an uneven effort, the fact remains the No. 14 Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 45-34 to win their 11th straight game. More importantly, they go into the ACC championship game next Saturday against No. 1 Clemson, clinging to albeit slim College Football Playoff hopes.
What the win means for North Carolina: The Tar Heels closed out an unbeaten regular season in ACC play, the first time that has happened since 1980. Back then, North Carolina only played six league games. So this marks the first 8-0 finish in this conference. It means the Tar Heels avenged a loss to their in-state rivals. But it also means, once again, that North Carolina was able to win even when not everything went right. It has been a similar theme throughout the season for a team that has continually found a way to make up for its miscues. After building a 35-7 first-quarter lead, the Tar Heels went flat. They committed three turnovers for the second straight week. Two came from quarterback Marquise Williams, including an interception in the red zone (again). Two of the turnovers were committed deep in their own territory, but give the North Carolina defense credit for holding NC State to field goals on both of those drives. Yes, the Tar Heels gave up over 200 yards rushing for the seventh time this season, but they made the plays when they needed to be made. So did the North Carolina ground game, which was unstoppable for the entire game. It finished with a season-high 374 yards rushing. Last year in this game, North Carolina had 30 total yards on the ground.
What the loss means for NC State: Many pegged the Wolfpack as a darkhorse team in the ACC when the season began. Instead, they finished with the same exact record to end the regular season as they had a year ago (7-5, 3-5). Only this time, they were unable to beat their in-state rivals, sleepwalking through the first quarter before making a game of it. NC State played ball control and had a big time of possession advantage. But it failed to capitalize on several big opportunities, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns on key drives. One of them, on fourth and goal down 42-23 early in the fourth quarter, featured a Jacoby Brissett touchdown run that was called back because of a penalty. Rather than go for it again, NC State opted for the field-goal attempt. Owning time of possession is a small consolation when there isn’t much in return. NC State’s run defense, which ranked No. 4 in the ACC headed into the game, gave up a season-high yardage total and simply had no answers.
Player of the game: Elijah Hood. Hood had a career-high 220 yards rushing and averaged a whopping 10.5. yards per carry, making one long run after another. He was the biggest difference-maker on the field. His rushing total is the most by any North Carolina player in the history of the NC State series. T.J. Logan wasn’t too shabby, either, with 100 yards (16.7 yards per carry).
Stat of the game: Williams broke the school record for total offense, passing Darian Durant with 9,794 yards ... and counting.