The difference in the second half of Carolina's 14-7 victory against Louisville on Saturday at Kenan Stadium could well turn out to be the difference between a genuinely memorable season and an average one.
By the end of the day, the Tar Heels had improved to 5-1, and that is the most important statistic of all.
"I think it's important to have a close this time of the season," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "I think it's important to go win an ugly football game. We can go back and the kids can say, 'Hey, we can win games when we don't play our best.'"
At halftime, Carolina had run 18 offensive plays to 41 for the Cardinals. Louisville had possession of the ball for 22 minutes and 8 seconds compared to 7 minutes and 52 seconds for the Tar Heels.
But the most important thing was that the defense did not yield, despite the offense leaving it on the field for much of the first half by going three-and-out again and again. UNC had two first downs in the first half, compared to 13 for the Cardinals.
"We just wanted to tell the offense to give us three [points]; we'll take care of everything else," senior defensive end Quinton Coples said. "We executed very well. We wanted to make sure we took care of business, especially in the second half.
"We felt like we gave up too many big plays in the first half."
While that may have been true, the Tar Heels did not allow any points. They did get an assist from Louisville place-kicker Chris Philpott, who hooked two field-goal attempts.
"That motivates us," Coples said. "We take pride in special teams here. We looked at film and saw where they had some leaks [in protection for the kicker]. We said if we executed [the rush] he would miss it. He was shaky."
The Cardinals made Carolina's offense look shaky with its tough defense along the line of scrimmage. Louisville overplayed and blitzed frequently. The Tar Heels helped by running too many slow-developing plays, both with runs and in the passing game.
Rather than have quarterback Bryn Renner make a quick three-step drop and throw some slants, often the plays called for him to curl on his drop in hopes of rolling out. On at least two occasions, he curled right into the arms of a Louisville defender for a sack.
The Cardinals sacked Renner four times for 27 yards in losses.
Instead of having the offensive line explode straight ahead and have Giovani Bernard get the ball on quick dives, the Tar Heels tried to trap too often and forced Bernard to wait on the ball.
UNC also failed to run Giovani enough. As Withers said earlier this season, the running game often starts with 2- and 3-yard gains before a back can start to rip off 7-, 8-, 10-yards or more.
Bernard had eight carries for 30 yards in the first half.
The Tar Heel offense turned it around in the second half as its playmakers came through yet again. Renner made the necessary throws, while Bernard finished the game with 109 yards rushing and a touchdown, the first score of the day. He has now rushed for more than 100 yards in four consecutive games, the first freshman in UNC history to do so. Amos Lawrence did it in three straight.
Wide receiver Dwight Jones continues his remarkable play with four catches for 91 yards. He scored the Tar Heels' second and decisive touchdown on a 43-yard pass on which he spun out of the arms of two defensive backs trying to strip the ball and waltzed into the end zone.
"Man, I don't know how he just continues to amaze us every day with something new," said junior-college transfer Fabby Desir said. "He is a tremendous part of this team. I'm going to love watching him play on Sundays next year."
Carolina's defense may have held Louisville scoreless in the first half, but it still got better in the second. The Tar Heels finished with six tackles for losses, two of which were quarterback sacks.
The quality of the second-half effort by the defense was enhanced by the fact that UNC was missing linebackers Kevin Reddick and Ebele Okakpu because of injuries.
"Coach Withers said we haven't come out as a defense in the second half and played a good game," Desir said. "This is the first game we played really good defense in the second half. That meant everything."