By Barry Jacobs, GoHeels.com
The predicted effects of Hurricane Sandy, the prodigious storm plodding up the East Coast, never materialized in Chapel Hill. Spectators who prepared to withstand wind and rain in order to watch North Carolina and N.C. State compete at Kenan Stadium stayed comfortably dry.
So did the playing field, which accommodated 1104 yards of total offense, 169 plays, and 78 points over nearly four hours of action.
In the end it was not the storm but a burst of brilliance, a lightning strike of excellence, that defined the gray afternoon, elevating the Tar Heels to a giddy 43-35 victory that left players and coaches wet after all, eyes overflowing with tears of joy.
"I started crying on the way to the end zone," admitted Gio Bernard, whose punt return for a touchdown clinched the key rivalry win in this bowl-less season, not to mention a permanent place in Tar Heel lore.
The Wolfpack had nurtured a lead for more than half the game, only to watch UNC score twice in the fourth quarter, forging a tie at 35-all on a field goal by Casey Barth with 1:24 remaining. The Pack, led by quarterback Mike Glennon, who threw for five touchdowns, had only to run out the clock to force overtime and regroup.
Didn't happen. On fourth and 10, after the Tar Heels spent their final timeout to stop the clock, N.C. State's Wil Baumann launched the 18th punt of the afternoon. Only four previous punts by both teams had been returned for a cumulative nine yards. There was still time left for UNC to move into position for a field goal attempt, but not much.
Then, as N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien observed, a modest breath of wind intervened, creating the opening a player like Bernard lives to exploit.
"I think we might have over-kicked it," said O'Brien, previously successful in all five meetings with the Tar Heels as head coach at N.C. State. "What you want to do is just kick it high in the air and make him fair-catch it, which we'd been doing. We have the wind behind us and the wind took it, but still you have to cover and make a tackle."
Coaches are fond of proclaiming that close games are not determined by one series, one player, one play. But as certain vice presidents might say during a debate, on this occasion such a dimishment of individual exceptionalism could be dismissed as "malarkey."
The man awaiting N.C. State's punt was Bernard, the redshirt sophomore whom UNC quarterback Bryn Renner called "probably the best player I've ever played with." Renner, a junior, also acquitted himself well against the Wolfpack, completing 30 of 47 passes for 358 yards and a touchdown.
Bernard had not been slated to handle the punt. Seeing the Heels set up "my favorite punt return," and encouraged by Renner, he waved off a teammate and retook the field. This was probably the last chance to determine the outcome in regulation, and Bernard characteristically seized it.
As Larry Fedora has learned to his pleasure, such circumstances are when Bernard excels. "He's a guy that when a play needs to be made, he wants to be out there," said Fedora, now 6-3, 3-2 in the ACC in his initial season as UNC's head coach. "He wants the ball in his hands."
The 5-10 tailback played with an injured ankle, rolled early in the third quarter along the N.C. State sideline. To that point Bernard had largely been contained by an N.C. State defense that, staggered early, held UNC scoreless for 36 minutes at mid-game.
Through three periods the darting, elusive back had two rushing touchdowns but only 50 yards on 16 carries, less than half his usual average per attempt. Bernard's impact was greater as a receiver. He had 76 yards on seven catches, Renner's passes exploiting advantageous open-field situations.
Come the fourth quarter others wore down; Bernard stepped up even as his ankle continued to ache. Over the final 15 minutes he rushed seven times for 89 yards and added a 19-yard reception.
On the Heels' final drive Bernard ripped off runs of 17 and 38 yards on consecutive carries to set up Barth's tying field goal. That increased his season's rushing total to 930 yards in seven games, best in the ACC. His per-game average of 132.9 also continues to pace the conference.
Perhaps the league's most electrifying player, Bernard made the most of his second punt return of the day. He fielded the ball at UNC's 26, cut right to follow a wall of blockers, then outran the defense along the Wolfpack sideline, veering through the end zone into the embrace of delirious students.
Guard Jonathan Cooper, all 295 pounds of him, said he and Bernard's teammates ran parallel along their own sideline in sympathetic harmony. "I wanted to tackle him myself, I was so excited," said the senior.
"He's pretty special," Fedora said of Bernard. "He believes it all the time and his teammates believe in him, every one of them do. They expect plays like that from him. Just when people believe, and they really expect good things to happen, a lot of times good things happen."
Carolina now stands tied for the lead in the Coastal Division; only one of its three remaining ACC opponents has as much as a .500 record. "This game was our Super Bowl game," said Bernard, who clinched a piece of immortality on the way to first place.