With the wind at his back and the skies momentarily clear, Virginia junior place kicker Todd Braverman punched a 50-yard field goal just beyond the crossbar with 27 seconds remaining today, silencing months of criticism and giving the 23rd-ranked Cavaliers a crucial 20-17 victory against North Carolina before 59,000 at Kenan Stadium.

Braverman, who missed several crucial important kicks last season, including an extra-point and potential winning field goal against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, was not named the starting kicker for today's season opener until Tuesday. He ended up punctuating a wild game in which the teams traded interceptions, punts, field goals and touchdowns almost until the final whistle. In a fitting end, Braverman converted the longest and most important field goal of his career without even seeing the results.

"I'm 5 foot 7, I can't see over the line," Braverman said. He turned away and walked toward the sideline, and knew the kick was good only "when I saw [Virginia Coach George Welsh] stick his hands up instead of throwing his hat."

Braverman retained his job after a heated battle with sophomore David Greene. He missed seven of his final 10 field goal tries last season, including a 54-yard potentially tying kick in the final minute against Georgia Tech Oct. 17 and a 48-yarder with 19 seconds left in the Peach Bowl. Both kicks missed by inches. Today's was just as close.

"I thought it went under the bar," quarterback Dan Ellis said. "I'm just happy for Todd, he deserves this."

And the Cavaliers needed it. They will be the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to open with two ACC road games (they play Clemson on Saturday). Their third game is against another ACC team, Wake Forest, before a trip to Brigham Young and a home game against 11th-ranked Virginia Tech.

Ellis, a junior making his first start, completed 10 of 25 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions--one of which was returned 89 yards for a touchdown just before halftime and another that set up North Carolina's tying touchdown with 7 minutes 44 seconds to play.

But senior tailback Thomas Jones helped cover Ellis's inconsistency by rushing for 149 yards on 35 carries; he carried the ball 23 times in the second half.

Virginia seemed to take control of the game by scoring two touchdowns in less than a minute at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. A one-yard run by Jones capped an eight-play, 64-yard drive with 44 seconds left in the third period.

On North Carolina's next play, sophomore quarterback Ronald Curry was intercepted by redshirt freshman safety Shernard Newby at the North Carolina 32-yard line. On the ensuing play, Ellis tossed a daring long pass over two Tar Heel defensive backs to wide receiver Kevin Coffey, who caught it for a 17-9 lead.

But after the Tar Heels were forced to punt on the next series, Ellis threw his third interception--this one to safety Billy-Dee Greenwood at the Cavaliers 30-yard line. The Tar Heels' drive seemed to stall at the 18, but on third and 10, Curry found tailback Anthony Saunders wide open for the touchdown. The play was typical of Curry's day--he seemed caught well behind the line of scrimmage, out of field goal range, but managed to find enough space to get the ball to Saunders. Curry again appeared trapped during the two-point conversion try, but he maneuvered and then drilled a pass to wide receiver Dauntae Finger, tying the score at 17 with 7:44 left.

Only his inaccuracy throwing the ball (10 of 28, with two interceptions) kept the Tar Heels' passing game in check. "That's a lot of offense out of one guy," Welsh said of Curry, who also rushed for 55 yards. "I hope he holds up. He's going to get hit."

Virginia starting defensive lineman Monsanto Pope, a sophomore, likely suffered a torn knee ligament in the first quarter and may be out six weeks.

Ellis's first drive, a 78-yard foray to the Tar Heels 5, ended in a field goal after fullback Anthony Southern was caught at the line of scrimmage on third and four.

As the game wore on, Braverman said it became apparent to him what the final play would be. After the tying two-point conversion, he began to laugh.

"I knew it was going to come down to a field goal," Braverman said. "I was laughing, because I knew I would get a chance."

CAPTION: Virginia quarterback Dan Ellis watches Tar Heels' Antwon Black run 89 yards for touchdown with an interception.