It doesn't seem real. North Carolina scored 25 points in the first quarter, then allowed N.C. State to reel off 28 straight, and yet in the final seconds found a way to beat the Wolfpack for the first time since 2006. Believe it.
From the 26-second mark of the first quarter to the 14:44 mark of the fourth, Carolina had 11 straight scoreless possessions. Eleven times the Tar Heel offense took the field and either punted, turned the ball over, or missed a field goal, giving the ball back to N.C. State and quarterback Mike Glennon. The Tar Heel defense weathered the storm for a good bit, but late in the third quarter, Glennon found a wide-open Brian Underwood to put the Wolfpack up ten. Here we go again. The Tar Heels had given a great effort, but N.C. State was just too much. For the sixth straight year. Or so we might have thought.
But Carolina wasn't done. "It's bad to say, but we're spurty," quarterback Bryn Renner said of the offensive ineptitude through the second and third quarters. "Sometimes we look like the 49er, sand sometimes we look like a Pee Wee team." But Renner and his teammates didn't give up, confident that something would break their way. "The one thing about this team is we never stop believing. All the time, I go over to the line and say 'Just believe. Just believe. We're going to make something happen.' We have all the intangibles to make something happen, so I think that's the one thing we did the whole game. It's going to be a 60-minute game so keep pushing and keep fighting."
And fight they did. The Tar Heel offense drove 74 yards early in the fourth quarter, with Renner finding Sean Tapley from three yards out to pull within three. Two possessions later, after a defensive stop, the offense settled for a game-tying field goal with 1:24 to play. The Wolfpack would have 84 seconds and three timeouts to drive inside Tar Heel territory and win the game. Kevin Reddick wouldn't have that. His sack of Glennon cost N.C. State seven yards, and perhaps short-circuited the Wolfpack's plans. Larry Fedora carefully used his timeouts to preserve some clock, though it might have cost him. "I was scared to death I was going to call a timeout and they were going to get a first down, and they had three timeouts," he said. "I was definitely worried about it, but you've got to make a call and so I made the call, and the defense held them."
Fedora used his final timeout with 30 seconds remaining. N.C. State's Will Baumann set up to punt, and Roy Smith got ready to return it for the Tar Heels. Got ready, but was called off. Giovani Bernard, who had already rushed for 135 yards, gained 95 yards through the air and scored two touchdowns, who had sprained his ankle midway through the game, called him off. "Let me see what I can do with this one," Bernard told Smith.
"He subbed himself in, which is unbelievable," Renner said later. "That's something Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan would do."
"I had to dig deep in myself. My ankle was bothering me a little bit. I went down earlier in the game and I just had to tough it through," Bernard said after the game. "That's the type of player that I am. That's the type of team that we are and we just had to take it on and see what we could do with it."
What he could do with it was magical. Bernard fielded the ball at the Carolina 26, moved to his right, and ran. All the way to the end zone. "I saw all blue jerseys, dark blue so I knew I had a wall coming back at me," he said. "I just started yelling 'go go go.' I can't remember who was in front of me (it was Romar Morris), he was able to block the punter and I was able to outrun the last guy. I still can't believe it. I'm still shaking right now. After that I started crying. I couldn't hold my emotions back."
Gio wasn't alone in that respect. Larry Fedora thought of the seniors who had never beaten N.C. State, and who upon the news of the postseason ban could have transferred to another school without penalty, but who all stayed at Carolina. One of them was Kevin Reddick, who was set to address the team last night but couldn't do so because of a 24-hour bug, yet who played through it and recorded three tackles for loss. Another was left guard Jonathan Cooper, who was banged up and returned to the game. "We were looking to maybe throw a couple of big passes and get in field goal range and win it that way," Cooper said. "But to see him keep going, keep going, I was like, 'At least we got the field goal yards,' and when he took it all the way, it was an amazing feeling."
It was an amazing feeling. It was the exorcism of the demons of the last five years. The N.C. State game was one game on the schedule, but it represented so much more. "It was bigger than hate," Cooper said. "This game was about pride and we just had to play our best and come out and work together."
With the victory formation, and Bryn Renner taking a knee as time expired came the turning of a page, the release of so many emotions. Beating N.C. State won't undo the past, but it sure helps the process of moving on. Bernard himself started crying as he ran toward the end zone on the punt return. The tears flowed in the locker room moments later. "It was different from last year and years before, where guys were crying tears of sadness," he said. "You can tell they were happy. They were tears of joy."
There will be no bowl game this year, ACC title game or Coastal Division championship. But there is the feeling that things are getting better. Believe it.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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