The 16th-ranked Stanford football team held off North Carolina for a 25-23 victory on Friday in the 83rd Hyundai Sun Bowl.
Fittingly, junior defensive lineman and Texas product Solomon Thomas preserved the victory. Saving his best for last, he sacked Tar Heel quarterback Mitch Trubisky on a two-point conversion attempt with 25 seconds left.
"I was able to get off," said Thomas, who wreaked havoc all game. "Our team played its hearts out. I wanted to do it for my brothers."
His heroic play helped the Cardinal (10-3) close the season with six-consecutive wins and reach 10 victories for the sixth time in seven seasons. North Carolina finished at 8-5.
As was the case much of the season, Stanford had to overcome adversity and costly penalties.
Junior quarterback Keller Chryst, 5-0 as a starter, injured his right knee scrambling with 1:30 remaining in the second quarter when he tried to plant his foot on the turf during a cut. He was helped off the field and carted to the locker room, later returning to sideline on crutches.
The Cardinal committed 12 penalties for 80 yards and sputtered in the red zone, managing four field goals in five trips.
Still, it found a way to win.
"It's a testament to the character of our team," Thomas said.
After a rocky start that saw Stanford go three-and-out on its first possession, North Carolina easily drove 71 yards in 10 plays, Trubisky hitting favorite target Ryan Switzer for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
The Cardinal countered with a 75-yard, six-play march. Chryst used play action to freeze the Tar Heel linebackers, then lofted a well-thrown pass down the sideline to sophomore running back and North Carolina native Bryce Love, who made the catch at the 29 and easily out-ran two defenders to complete a 49-yard scoring play. With 6:11 left in the first quarter, the game was tied 7-7.
Stanford claimed its first lead late in the quarter on a 44-yard field goal by fifth-year senior Conrad Ukropina. But it was costly possession, as Chryst was hurt and replaced by senior Ryan Burns.
Burns, who started the first seven games, had first and 10 at the Tar Heel 16, but the offense sputtered. Ukropina salvaged points by converting his 19th field goal of the season in 23 attempts, and the Cardinal led, 10-7.
The defense provided another great scoring opportunity when the usually accurate Trubisky was intercepted by fifth-year free safety Dallas Llloyd, who read his eyes and stepped in front of Switzer. It was Lloyd's team-leading fourth pick of the season and he displayed his former quarterback skills by returning it 45 yards to the North Carolina 20.
However, the Cardinal was unable to capitalize. Ukropina missed a 36-yard field goal, hitting the (left) upright for the fourth time this season.
The defense created another scoring chance late in the second quarter, with help from the umpire. During a Trubisky run, the official inadvertently knocked the ball loose and lineman Dylan Jackson alertly recovered at the Tar Heel 17.
Burns advanced the ball to the 6 by connecting with sophomore wide receiver Trenton Irwin, who made a juggling catch to complete the 12-yard completion. A holding penalty backed up Stanford, but Ukropina booted a 33-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 13-7 halftime advantage.
The North Carolina defense entered 113th against the run but limited Stanford to 46 yards and only 1.9 per attempt. While the Cardinal earned a seven-minute time of possession advantage, it self-destructed with six penalties for 45 yards.
The Tar Heels nearly narrowed the deficit with their first possession of the third quarter, but missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. On the next play, junior fullback Daniel Marx sprung Love for a 59-yard run, finally getting dragged down at the North Carolina 7.
Once again, Stanford struggled in the red zone, losing ground on false start and intentional grounding penalties. Ukropina bailed them out with a 43-yard field goal to lift the Cardinal to a 16-7 lead.
The Tar Heels matched it midway through the quarter on 37-yard field goal by Nick Weiler. They benefitted from a questionable 15-yard pass interference call against cornerback Quenton Meeks, who appeared to have good position.
Following a three-and-out by the Stanford offense, North Carolina regained a 17-16 advantage on a 5-yard run by Jordan Brown. The Tar Heels moved at will on the ground and through the air, never facing a third down on the nine-play, 68-yard drive.
Unable to generate a first down, the Cardinal ran three plays and punted to start the fourth quarter. But this time, the defense rose to the occasion.
Trubisky tried to find running back T.J. Logan sneaking out of the backfield on the near sideline, but Lloyd sniffed it out, intercepted and sprinted 19 yards untouched into the end zone. Stanford went for a two-point conversion with Burns lobbing a jump ball to JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone. He went high for the catch between two defenders but couldn't come down with the ball.
With 14:33 remaining, the Cardinal pulled ahead, 22-17.
North Carolina came right back and moved into field goal range. But on third down, outside linebacker Bobby Okereke sacked Trubisky for a 13-yard loss and forced a punt.
Looking to put the game away, Stanford used trickery. Lining up in the wildcat formation, the ball was snapped to running back Cameron Scarlett, who handed off to Love running left. Burns, who had been flanked wide left, ran back toward Love, took a pitch, then fired deep for fifth-year senior wide receiver Francis Owusu. He made a nice catch falling backward to complete a 41-yard play to the Tar Heel 22.
A face mask penalty gave the Cardinal first and goal at the 1, but the red zone problems continued. Twice, North Carolina stuffed Stanford for no gain. On third and goal, Burns ran the option to the right and pitched to Love who was dropped for a 3-yard loss. Ukropina kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 25-17 cushion with 3:23 to play.
Following a Tar Heel punt, Stanford could have iced the contest but couldn't gain a first down. That gave Trubisky another chance and he made the most of it.
Starting from his own 3 with 1:30 left, he dissected the Cardinal defense and his receivers made several tough catches. As he had most of the game, Trubisky eluded several near sacks and found Bug Howard with a 2-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining.
Needing a two-point conversion to tie and force overtime, Trubisky dropped back to throw and looked for Switzer in the end zone. But Thomas capped a monster performance by dragging him down by his jersey with his right hand for a sack.
In only his second start, Love rushed for 115 yards on 22 carries. Burns completed 6 of 11 passes for 86 yards and Chryst hit 3 of 6 for 68.