Carolina left its arch football rival in an awful State Saturday after awakening a dead offense to score 18 points in the fourth quarter and startle the smug Wolfpack, which played most of the second half like it had the game won.
Not only did the Tar Heels snap that sickening five-game losing streak to State, they did it in such a way that the deflated Pack might play like dogs for the rest of the season. If you can ever make up for five losses with one win, Carolina came close in perhaps the strangest and most sensational game ever played among the lofty pines of Kenan Stadium.
The teams combined for 78 points and more than 1100 total yards, despite Carolina going scoreless in the middle two quarters on 11 straight possessions and State managing only one touchdown in the second half.
After emerging in navy blue uniforms and metallic silver helmets with a light blue Heel print covering both sides, the Tar Heels not only looked like a Nike version of Oregon East, but raced to their first 15 points on two reverses and one trick two-point conversion. The crowd was rocking, images of a vengeful blowout dancing in our dreams. Then reality set in.
State, by contrast, wore boring uniforms of retro-loooking red and white from the 1960s, when the Wolfpack played for Earle Edwards and in a concrete carcass at the fairgrounds that later become the expanded Carter-Finely complex.
After shaking off UNC’s opening salvo, State took to the air behind its 6-6 quarterback Mike Glennon who stood untouched in the pocket to begin throwing his five touchdown passes on the day. Giving Glennon time to find open receivers amidst UNC’s small, young secondary is a recipe for disaster. And with Glennon facing a third-and-long, perhaps the easiest play in football to defend, he rolled right and fired a missile to tiny Tobias Palmer 20 yards behind the dark blue d-backs to put the Pack in front for the first time.
Glennon completed 29 passes and had at least six dropped, but Carolina also shot itself in the Heel by blowing two red zone opportunities. Bryn Renner, who played great early and late, threw a bad interception from the 5-yard line, and 6-4 freshman Quinshad Davis allowed State’s 5-11 graduate student C.J. Wilson to strip a reception away that would have led to another UNC score.
During the Tar Heels’ scratch sandwich in the second and third periods, State stupidly stopped attacking the Carolina defense, which was calling more blitzes to put pressure on Glennon. One last long TD pass for a 10-point lead convinced the Wolfpack all it had to do was run the clock and go home with a sixth straight win over the school it has had fun mocking the last two years for off-field problems.
But whether banged up or looking beaten, don’t ever give up on a Larry Fedora team. Gio Bernard, our modern-day Choo Choo, exemplified that by coming back from a sprained ankle with tape inside and outside his shoe. He was better off to keep moving than letting it stiffen on the sideline. Primarily a swing pass receiver early, the Gio-blaster put it into high gear to go over a hundred yards rushing for the fourth straight game and capped the incredible comeback with the 74-yard punt return that afforded him official legend status with the Tar Heels.
When he saw Carolina setting up for a return (instead of going for the block) after State seemed satisfied to take the 35-35 score into overtime, Bernard waved Roy Smith off the field and played with pain for one more play, a race to the right and sprint up the sideline that will live in Tar Heel infamy. He found his blocking wall and, barely touched, streaked by agape State players and coaches into the end zone and right to the crazed Tar Pit students. They were hugging him and banging him while Gio was crying.
State pulled out some of those five straight wins with a little luck and probably kicked itself all the way back to Raleigh for letting this one get away. The Wolfpack ran the ball to kill the clock at the end, allowing UNC to use its last two timeouts and get one more chance to win in regulation. Then Pack punter Will Baumann brazenly boomed the ball to Bernard in the middle of the field without angling it for the sideline or, for cripes sake, kicking the sucker out of bounds.
What a dummkopf. Hadn’t he heard of Gio Bernard before?