by Mike Potter
Today on a cool fall afternoon UNC (5-3, 2-2 ACC) will host archrival N.C. State (5-2, 2-1) for the 102nd time. And while the Wolfpack can gain bowl eligibility with a victory, the Tar Heels are playing their entire season for pride since the NCAA says UNC can’t go to a bowl.
The series has been the crown jewel of Tom O’Brien’s coaching tenure at State since he’s 5-0 against the Tar Heels, while first-year UNC coach Larry Fedora is new at this particular madness. And the Tar Heels are desperate for victory for another reason, as they’re coming off a 33-30 last-second loss at Duke last week that earned the Blue Devils a bowl spot.
UNC gets its mojo back with a thrilling comeback and a wild finish, as Gio Bernard returns a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with just 13 seconds to go to set up a 43-35 win.
And they score again on their next possession, with Erik Highsmith going 45 yards to pay dirt on a reverse to complete a two-play, 54-yard journey at 11:00. Holder Tommy Hibbard hits Jack Tabb on a conversion pass and it’s 15-0.
State bounces back with 6:35 left in the quarter, as Mike Glennon finds Charlie Hegedus in the left corner of the end zone from 32 yards out to finish a nine-play, 75-yard excursion. Niklas Sade adds the kick.
But the Tar Heels keep the points coming.
Barth hits a 45-yard field goal at 3:42 to finish an 11-play, 55-yard drive.
And then Bernard scores again from a yard out at 1:24 to finish a six-play, 25-yard march set up when Jeff
Schoettmer recovers a Mario Carter fumble. Barth’s try makes it 25-7.
State finishes the first-quarter scoring at the 26-second mark, as Glennon connects with Rashard Smith from 30 out to end a six-play, 75-yard march with Sade adding the boot.
The Wolfpack trims the lead to four with 11:35 remaining in the second, as Glennon’s 20-yard pass to Bryan Underwood completes a three-play, 47-yard drive with Sade adding the kick.
State takes the lead with 6:49 left in the half, as Glennon connects with Tobias Palmer on an 83-yard bomb and Sade converts to make it 28-25.
And the Wolfpack pads it with 39 seconds left in the third, as Glennon finds Underwood in stride for a 55-yard scoring pass and Sade converts.
But the Tar Heels close it to 35-32 with 10:23 to play on Renner’s three-yard pass to Sean Tapley.
And they tie it on Barth’s 34-yard field goal with 1:24 left at the end of a nine-play, 60-yard drive.
The Wolfpack can’t move, and Wil Baumann punts to the UNC 26. Bernard takes the ball at the left hashmark, follows his blockers to the right sideline and flies down the field untouched. The conversion is a broken play since the Tar Heels have only 10 bodies on the field, but Tabb finds Hibbard again to make it 43-35 — strange but true since UNC was a 7½-point favorite.
Bernard finishes with 304 all-purpose yards, rushing 23 times for 135 yards and two TDs and catching eight passes for 95 more. Renner completes 30 of 47 passes for 358 yards and a touchdown.
Glennon has a career-type day in the loss, completing 29 of 52 passes for a career-high 467 yards and five TDs with two interceptions. Underwood catches six passes for 118 yards and two TDs while Palmer snags five for 119 and one score.
They said it …
Fedora: “That was a lot of fun. It was obviously a wild game, with a lot of things going back and forth. We had talked during the week that it didn’t matter what happened in the first couple of plays of the game; it didn’t matter what happened in the second or third quarter. It was going to come down to the last possession. We really believed that and the kids bought into that.”
O’Brien: “We expected the first-quarter blitz. When you’re in a situation like this with all the hype that’s gone on … They hadn’t won in five years, it was a (UNC) home game, and they’d been spending all year getting ready for it … (On the punt) I think we might have over-kicked it. We had the wind behind us and the wind took it, but you still have to cover and make a tackle.”
Bernard: “It was just digging deep. This entire team, this is something we faced the entire year, adversity. We were down and we wanted to make something happen. Each and every single game we face some kind of adversity. That last play was something where the entire team knew what we had to do, and we accomplished it.”
Renner: “I’ll never forget this as long as I live. It’s something you can cherish as a team, and these are the guys I’ll be friends with the rest of my life. I absolutely cried. It was an unbelievable play by Gio. I told him to check himself into the play for the punt — we needed a big return and it’s unbelievable what he did today.”
What does it all mean?
That the Tar Heels are feeling good about themselves again and won’t have a losing season, and that State remains one win away from a bowl but is highly favored to get it.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Bernard’s punt return.
UNC: Won 1.
State: Lost 1.
UNC leads 64-32-6.
N.C. State vs. Virginia, Nov. 3, 12:30 p.m.
UNC vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 10, TBA