A football game has four quarters and Saturday's division-clinching win over Virginia Tech had four acts, even if the acts didn't mirror the quarters.
There was the first three quarters, where both teams pretty much bumbled and stumbled their way through a sloppy, emotional football game. UNC sliced down the field on its first possession and took a quick 7-0 lead, only to shoot itself in the foot time and time again and could only muster one more field goal over the next 2 1/2 quarters. Meanwhile Virginia Tech wasn't going to be outdone in the self-inflicted wound category, as key penalties derailed solid drives. Three full quarters of offensive derpitude left the score knotted at 10 going into the fourth period.
Act two commenced as Carolina tried to morph into the team the ACC has come to know for the past month. Naz Jones stripped Hokie running back Sam Rogers at the end of the 3rd and the Heels chomped up 45 yards in five plays capped by a 13-yard touchdown run by Elijah Hood to get some breathing room at 17-10. On the next possession, Des Lawrence intercepted an underthrown ball by VT quarterback Michael Brewer at the Carolina 16, and the Heels set out on what should have been a soul-crushing, 84-yard, 13-play drive that took five minutes off the clock and had the offensively-challenged Hokies facing a two-touchdown deficit with just under eight minutes to play. When M.J. Stewart again intercepted Brewer inside the UNC 20, that looked like it would be it for Frank Beamer's storybook ending in Lane Stadium.
Not so fast, my friend.
Act three began with UNC driving well into Hokie territory before Marquise Williams fumbled, giving VT a stay of execution. Eight plays and a minute and a half later, Tech scored again to cut the lead to 24-17. Then after the Hokies chose to kick deep with two timeouts, UNC put the ball on the ground for a sixth time, causing Williams to lose his third fumble of the day. With a short field, Tech marched right down the field and scored to tie the game with a little over a minute to play. Carolina had time and two timeouts, but with some bizarre play-calling (and timeout-calling) on UNC's part, the game would go to overtime with the Hokies with all the momentum.
In the final act, the goat became the hero. UNC's defense that had been gashed on the previous two possessions, stiffened in overtime and held the Hokies to a three-play, 41-yard field goal attempt that snuck through. Now down for the first time all day at 27-24, Williams calmly found Ryan Switzer for 18 yards and a 1st-and goal, and on 3rd down hit Carolina's all-time leading receiver Quinshad Davis for the game-winning score. The Hokies' Hollywood ending for their retiring coach was denied, and the Heels will be making their first-ever trip to Charlotte to face top-ranked Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on December 5th.
On paper the stats don't look all that bad. Williams was a pedestrian 13-25 for 205 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 67 more and another score. Elijah Hood ran for 115 yards and a score and Carolina posted 443 yards of offense. But outside of the four touchdown possessions, UNC was pretty bad on offense. Carolina had a season-high in punts and had 9 penalties, six of which were pre-snap infractions. And speaking of that, until the middle of the fourth quarter the offensive line had far and away its most awful performance of the season. Meanwhile the defense bent and bent and just when it looked like they were broken, they came up big in the overtime period.
All in all, these are the kinds of games teams sometimes have to survive when when they go on 10-game winning streaks. You don't dominate 10 in a row and playing in a tough road venue on an emotional day is tough enough; when you don't bring your A-game, you can be fortunate to survive. But UNC did survive the hype, the emotion, and the poor performances and will advance to Charlotte for the first time (the 2012 team won a share of the Coastal Division title and would have advanced to the ACC Championship game that year but the team was on NCAA post-season sanction) regardless of what happens in Raleigh next week.