If the fortunes of North Carolina’s two largest football programs over the last week forecast the outcome on Election Day, the “blues” are trending upward and the “reds” are in a free fall.
In other words, the North Carolina Tar Heels are feeling great about themselves while the N.C. State Wolfpack is in a panic that even the best spin doctors cannot cure. While UNC enjoyed a much-needed weekend off, State followed its fourth-quarter collapse in Chapel Hill with a one-sided Homecoming horror show against last-place Virginia that could be the beginning of the end for Coach Tom O’Brien.
Even before the State-Carolina kick-off on October 27, an undercurrent among the media was that new Wolfpack Athletic Director Debbie Yow is not TOB’s biggest supporter. And, supposedly, she gave her incumbent coach a preseason ultimatum that he had to beat the Tar Heels for the sixth straight year and win the Atlantic Division of the ACC.
Neither happened, and then State showed up against Virginia with a major hangover, trailing 26-0 on the way to a 33-6 loss to a 2-6 team coming into the game. Caulton Tudor of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote afterward that O’Brien may be in hot water but should survive because he has three years left on his contract and has a spotless record with the NCAA.
That won’t hold much political capital with the tough-minded Yow, who before coming to State fired Ralph Friedgen at Maryland with millions left on his contract. And having a clean slate with the NCAA is what coaches are supposed to do, as O’Brien led the laugh track over UNC’s troubles for two years.
His infamous “triple play” comment last season about Carolina’s NCAA woes – impermissible benefits, an agent on staff and academic fraud – made him the unofficial mayor of Raleigh, if not the Governor in a Republican state, but his support has since abated big time.
It all began to change in the fourth quarter last week and then turned over, in the blink of an eye, with Gio Bernard’s dramatic game-winning punt return. State had rallied to take a 10-point lead and likely would have won had it kept attacking the Tar Heels’ vulnerable secondary. But, after Carolina forged a 35-35 tie, O’Brien and his staff were guilty of horrible clock management and ultra-conservative play-calling down the stretch, opening the door for much more than a win on the football field.
“It felt cathartic,” said Jones Angell, the second-year Voice of the Tar Heels whose call of Bernard’s 74-yard gem has already become Carolina lore. He said it was a combination of describing a return that was setting up perfectly from his vantage point and then letting his emotions follow Gio down the State sideline.
“You could see the blocking wall forming on the right side of the field,” Angell said, “and all Gio had to do was get around the corner for what would have been, at least, a long return to get Carolina pretty close to field goal range.”
But when Tre Boston blocked one State defender into another, essentially wiping out two men, and T.J. Jiles threw another big block, the only man left for Bernard to beat was punter Will Baumann, who had foolishly kicked it right to him.
“No he’s not! Yes he is!” Angell shrieked as Gio high-stepped over Baumann and outran State’s Brandan Bishop into the end zone “FOR A TOUCHDOWN!”
Then Angell ripped off the words that will live as long as any his predecessor Woody Durham bellowed during his 40 years behind the mike.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME!”
Angell said the spectacular finish tapped into his place as a lifelong Carolina fan, just as an insane Kenan Stadium rocked with people yelling their own words of joy and amazement. But he also said the play was like taking the biggest sigh of relief one could imagine.
“It did seem like a cathartic moment,” Angell said. “First, we hadn’t beaten State for five years and, second, so much had happened to our football program over the last two and half years. It just felt like when Gio turned the corner, Carolina football finally turned the corner with him.”
The 43-35 victory for Coach Larry Fedora was something neither Butch Davis nor Everett Withers could accomplish. It also kept Fedora from going 0-3 against Tobacco Road rivals in his first year. With no post-season play, a loss last weekend might have sucked much of the motivation from the last three games.
As it is, the Tar Heels will be favored to win out over Georgia Tech, Virginia and Maryland and finish 9-3, which would be the most regular-season victories since the Mack Brown era ended 15 years ago. And it just might leave Carolina alone in first place (6-2) of the Coastal Division of the ACC, although UNC has been instructed that it cannot officially claim such a championship.
A post-season ban is one thing, but not being able to call yourselves division champs is ridiculous and is without precedent. Two N.C. State basketball teams that were on probation and banned from the NCAA Tournament won the ACC Championship and have banners hanging to prove it.
There are still three weeks to go, but if the Tar Heels turn this state blue in that way, UNC ought to hang the biggest banner possible and declare them the 2012 Unofficial ACC Coastal Division Champions!
They would have won it on the field, if not in the political process.