CHAPEL HILL – Saturday was as much of a necessity as it was a joy for North Carolina’s football program.
Sure, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the Tar Heels’ last-minute victory against N.C. State, but for North Carolina’s sake, it had to happen.
This team, which can’t play in a bowl game or for the ACC Championship, was coming off a loss to Duke for the first time in more than a decade and facing its biggest football rival, a team North Carolina had lost to five straight times.
This win was a must. This win, at least to senior linebacker Kevin Reddick, was North Carolina’s bowl game.
“It’s a great win for us,” said Reddick, who was sick all week but had a key sack on N.C. State’s final drive. “It’s a sigh of relief.”
Reddick was one of many seniors to whom first-year coach Larry Fedora gave a choice before the season started: Leave with no hard feelings or stay for a final season with no postseason possibilities.
To Reddick, the choice was easy. Winning games like Saturday makes the decision to remain in Chapel Hill worthwhile.
“It’s great knowing that my teammates and I beat State. I’m kind of speechless right now,” Reddick said after the game. “I’m going to lean on this game ... and I know it’s big for us, because now we can go around talking trash around town.”
Four weeks ago, North Carolina (6-3, 3-2) was beginning the most important stretch of its schedule. That stretch started with Virginia Tech and Miami, a chance for UNC to prove itself to the rest of the ACC and the nation under Fedora, and finished with Duke and N.C. State, an opportunity for the Tar Heels to settle in as a dominant school in the state for the immediate future.
A 3-1 record coming out of the past month can be considered quite an accomplishment, even if that one loss came to the one team Tar Heels fans can’t stand.
After knocking off two perennial conference powerhouses, North Carolina lost to its most bitter rival. That’s what made Saturday important. The Tar Heels couldn’t let that loss linger.
Fedora made sure it didn’t.
“I told them at the beginning of the week that I didn’t have to say anything,” said Fedora, who placed N.C. State colors throughout the locker room immediately after the Duke loss. “They know what this game meant.”
North Carolina started Saturday like it needed the win. The Tar Heels scored 25 points in the first quarter and went deep into their creative playbook.
A double reverse pass went for 41 yards on the second play of the game.
A double reverse run went for 45 yards and a touchdown on the second drive.
A swinging gate formation on a 2-point conversion ended in, well, two points.
North Carolina even threw in a flea-flicker, all before the game was 11 minutes old.
“We are designed as an offense to have plays like that,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “We have explosive plays that can turn momentum around. We knew we were going to have to make explosive plays.”
Even after North Carolina’s best push, N.C. State (5-3, 2-2) came back behind quarterback Mike Glennon, who threw a school-record five touchdowns in a 34-minute span. Meanwhile, North Carolina failed to score for more than 30 timed minutes – nearly two hours of actual action.
That was until Renner found Sean Tapley to start the fourth quarter. After a field goal, running back Giovani Bernard ended the game with a game-winning punt return.
“You make memories like that,” Renner said. “I’ll never forget this as long as I live. It’s something you can cherish as a team.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or email@example.com