CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — One minute, North Carolina was clinging to a 20-13 lead, and Virginia was in position to tie the game.
The next, the Tar Heels' maligned defense had a goal-line stand, and the rout was about to be on.
Bryn Renner threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter after a goal-line stand preserved the Tar Heels' lead and North Carolina ended Virginia's postseason hopes with a 37-13 victory on a cold Thursday night at Scott Stadium.
"I told the team ... we can make these the best two weeks, or the worst two weeks," defensive lineman Sylvester Williams said of the final games in a season where the Tar Heels are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
"Don't let Georgia Tech best us twice," Williams said he told his defensive teammates, referring to last week's 68-50 home loss to the Yellow Jackets on homecoming. "We never lost pride because at the end of the day, when you're a good football team, you've got to build off the losses. Sixty-eight points? That was embarrassing, but we built off of it."
The game looked as if it might become a classic in the oldest rivalry in the south, then turned quickly.
The Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) stopped Kevin Parks for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-goal from the 1, then drove 97 yards to Renner's 23-yard pass to a wide open Giovani Bernard over the middle for the touchdown.
A 5-yard completion to Erik Highsmith on fourth-and-2 came on the play just before the touchdown pass, and after Virginia (4-7, 2-5) was forced to punt on the ensuing possession, Renner's 20-yard TD pass to Highsmith finished it.
The Cavaliers had won two in a row after a six-game slide and were hoping to win two more to qualify for a bowl game. They shut down Bernard, the ACC's runaway rushing leader, but were picked apart by Renner's precise passing.
"People really don't notice how well he plays sometimes, and he did a great job tonight," Bernard said of his QB.
Renner finished 29 for 36 for 315 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target on the night was freshman Quinshad Davis, who caught 16 passes – tying the ACC record – for 178 yards.
"They play a lot of soft man and they gave us the opportunity to get the ball the edge," Davis said. He caught several passes near the line of scrimmage, then used a fake or a block to turn the plays into sizeable gains.
But the defense was the Tar Heels' wild card coming in, and responded, even in a short week.
"I guess we answered the question of whether those guys can bounce back or not," coach Larry Fedora said.
Trailing 20-13, the Cavaliers drove to a first-and-goal at the Tar Heels 8. A draw play by Michael Rocco gained 5 on first down, and runs by Perry Jones and Kevin Parks gained a yard each. Virginia went for the tie, and Parks was stuffed.
"They were hurt by what happened last week," Fedora said, "and they have a lot of pride."
The Tar Heels followed with their big drive and, when Darius Jennings got behind the secondary and Phillips Sims floated a certain 81-yard touchdown pass into his hands on third-and-13, Jennings juggled and dropped it. The Cavaliers punted, and five plays later, Renner to Highsmith made it 34-13.
The tandem also teamed up on 9-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring.
"It's tough," Rocco said of the way the game turned. "It was tough on our defense when we didn't score, and a little bit deflating. Football is like that sometimes. It can change so quickly, and it happened for us today like that."
The Cavaliers squandered several chances, managing only a field goal after Bernard fumbled a punt at his own 12 and Virginia recovered, and Jennings' drop, and then when they came away with nothing near the goal line.
Virginia trailed 14-3 early but closed to 14-10 on a nifty third-down scramble by Sims, who avoided a sack, rolled right and found Jennings in the end zone from 9 yards out. Sims also had a 13-yard run on third-and-9 at the start of the drive, and Parks powered for a yard to convert on fourth-and-1.
The Tar Heels answered by driving to the Cavaliers 15, where Renner was sacked by Brent Urban for an 8-yard loss on third-and-13. Thomas Moore tried a 40-yard field goal, but missed wide right.
Sims' lone series had produced Virginia's lone touchdown to that point, but in Virginia's quarterback rotation that coach Mike London described this week as "random," the coaches sent Rocco back out for the next series, and his first pass was picked off by Tre Boston, who returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels' first two touchdowns came as Renner picked apart a defense geared to stop the run.
He hit Davis for 25, 10 and 20 yards in a 91-play drive that ended with his 9-yard touchdown pass to Highsmith, and he hit Davis for 32 yards on the next drive. Davis also drew a 15-yard pass interference call when cornerback Demetrious Nicholson latched onto him from behind on a throw to the end zone.
That set up North Carolina at 3, and A.J. Blue ran it in on the next play.
Renner was 19 for 23 in the half for 201 yards, and Davis had 10 catches for 130 yards.