Stanford's defense was exhausted after carrying its team's weight for the entirety of Friday's Hyundai Sun Bowl, and North Carolina ripped off a furious 10-play, 95-yard touchdown drive in the final seconds to set up a dramatic ending.
But Solomon Thomas dug deep to make the decisive play. The Cardinal's star defensive lineman ripped through the line of scrimmage on the Tar Heels' two-point conversion attempt, spurring a sack to hold off North Carolina's charge.
Stanford won 25-23, logging a third straight bowl victory for the first time in program history.
The Cardinal lost their hold on the Pac-12 crown via three straight league defeats early in the season, but they've capped 2016 on a six-game win streak to end the year on a good note.
Stanford also posted another 10-win season, their sixth in the past seven years. Only four other programs -- Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma -- have accomplished that.
For Stanford, this campaign was certainly the most underwhelming of those six, as it didn't end in a top-tier bowl game -- and didn't even feature Christian McCaffrey at the finish line. The star running back chose to skip the Sun Bowl to begin preparations for the 2017 NFL draft.
But as the Cardinal have throughout this decade, they again showed that they're capable of winning in multiple ways.
Stifling defense was their method of choice against North Carolina. Thomas manhandled the Tar Heels' front in critical situations, and safety Dallas Lloyd delivered two interceptions and one forced fumble -- including the go-ahead pick-six.
Stanford's defense made up for another lackluster offensive performance, setting the scene for 2017. Stanford is confident that its defense will continue to be good moving forward, and it can be especially bullish about its prospects on that side of the ball if Thomas returns for his senior season.
But the Sun Bowl delivered more questions than answers for the Stanford offense, which will be a critical component of the Cardinal's bid to regain Pac-12 North superiority over Washington next season.
McCaffrey, of course, will be gone -- but Bryce Love again showed to be a capable heir apparent, racking up 115 rushing yards on 22 carries and delivering a 49-yard touchdown catch.
But Keller Chryst, the quarterback who tossed that score to Love in the first quarter, injured his knee shortly thereafter. He did not return, and Stanford's offense struggled under backup Ryan Burns, who finished 6-of-11 for only 86 yards.
It was a repeat of a theme that reared its head under both quarterbacks several times this season: The Cardinal offense sputtered, and the defense had to bail it out. Establishing consistent balance on both sides of the ball will be an offseason priority.
North Carolina, meanwhile, ends an 8-5 season that had potential on a particularly disappointing note. The Tar Heels notched impressive victories over Pittsburgh, Florida State and Miami in 2016, but this turnover-laden missed opportunity against Stanford was their third loss in four games to close the season. The other two defeats came to in-state rivals Duke and NC State.
Both of these teams will have to replace key pieces in 2017, but Stanford can enjoy the early boost in that effort with this dramatic win entering the offseason.