CHAPEL HILL – There was plenty of debate as to exactly how North Carolina’s game-winning touchdown began.
Tar Heels running back Giovani Bernard remembered hearing his favorite punt return being called and forcing his back-up returner, Roy Smith, off the field without his coaches’ knowledge.
First-year coach Larry Fedora knew that Bernard, who was playing despite two swollen ankles, would race onto the field.
Quarterback Bryn Renner, Bernard’s roommate, swears that he told Bernard to go into the game.
No matter how it started, no one will disagree about the finish: Bernard running down the sideline, tears in his eyes, and after a 74-yard punt return with 13 seconds to play, a 43-35 victory for North Carolina against in-state rival N.C. State.
“This game will definitely go down in the record books for me,” Bernard said. “Not just because of the yards or because of the punt return but because of the emotion. … We just wanted this. We wanted this for our university, our staff, coach Fedora and especially our seniors.”
Fedora tried to wipe his tears away quickly when they came, while the seniors in the locker room left them for all to see. They were badges of honor, because this victory for North Carolina (6-3, 3-2 ACC) was a long time coming. Five years to be exact.
N.C. State had won five straight times against North Carolina before Saturday, but instead of continuing that streak, North Carolina continued one of its own, remaining unbeaten in six home games this season.
“They believed they were going to win the football game,” Fedora said. “That’s why we won.”
In a game that had all the highs and lows of the traditional UNC-N.C. State rivalry contest, nobody would have guessed that the game would have been decided by a punt return.
Fedora told his team all week, and for much of the game while walking the sideline, that the result would come down to the final possession. It nearly came down to the final play.
“We just kept fighting, knowing that it would be a 60-minute ball game,” defensive lineman Sylvester Williams said. “We knew it was going to come down to the last drive. Whichever team had the ball last was going to have the opportunity to win the game.”
After the teams combined for 940 yards through the first three quarters, N.C. State had possession with the game tied and 1:24 to play. Just enough time for N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, who tied a school record with five touchdown passes and threw for a career-high 467 yards, to drive the Wolfpack (5-3, 2-2) down the field for the game-winning score.
It seemed almost certain that Fedora’s prophecy would come true. But Fedora, who won his first game against N.C. State on his first try in the rivalry, was only half right. It wasn’t the final possession but the final play that determined the winner.
Once it seemed like N.C. State was playing for overtime late in the final drive, Fedora called two worrisome timeouts to give Bernard a chance.
There were 17 punts before N.C. State punter Wil Baumann’s final kick. The teams combined for just nine return yards on those punts. But there was something extra on the final kick. It was Baumann’s best of the day.
“That’s probably the deepest kick he hit,” said N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien, who lost to North Carolina for the first time as the coach of the Wolfpack. “What you want to do is just kick it high in the air and make him fair catch it, which we’d been doing.”
Bernard caught the ball with the coverage team closing in, and by his own admission, said the coverage team wasn’t close enough: The wall was set up. When the final Wolfpack defender fell at Bernard’s feet, the skid was broken and the Tar Heels raced onto the field.
“I still can’t believe it, I’m still shaking right now,” Bernard said after the game. “After (the return), I started crying. I couldn’t hold my emotions back.”
Bernard, who recorded the first punt return touchdown against N.C. State since 2005, finished with a career-best 304 total yards and three touchdowns to complement Renner, who finished with 358 yards – the second-most of his career.
Renner finally bested his longtime rival Glennon. The two grew up just a few minutes apart in Northern Virginia.
Glennon threw a touchdown pass to four different receivers, including Bryan Underwood, who has caught a touchdown pass in a school record eight consecutive games – the longest active streak in the NCAA and one game shy of the ACC record.
Glennon did it all while N.C. State rallied back from North Carolina’s 25-point, first-quarter explosion.
“We expected the first-quarter blitz,” O’Brien said. “When you’re in a situation like this and all the hype that’s gone on … you expect them to blitz coming out with that in the first quarter. That’s the way these games go. You have to survive it.”
N.C. State just wasn’t ready when North Carolina came back a second time. The Wolfpack wasn’t ready for Bernard. But nobody has been this season.
“It’s just great to have a guy like that on your team,” North Carolina cornerback Tre Boston said. “You never know when he is going to score. He’s a home-run hitter.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org