Three Things: UNC 43, NC State 35
1. One of the most fun things about sports are those days when you go to a game and get to hug a stranger. You sit through everything else--losses at Duke, rainy days against Idaho, blistering hot season openers against Elon--just for the chance that you might have one of those days. Those other games, you forget soon after they happen, but you know that the next time you go to the game, it might be one that you'll remember forever. Saturday, thanks to Giovani Bernard, was one of those days.
His 74-yard punt return with less than 30 seconds to play was instantly one of the biggest plays in Tar Heel football history. It sent what had been, through the middle of the game, a lethargic Kenan Stadium crowd into pandemonium. From the end zone, you could see it unfolding perfectly. First, it looked like Roy Smith was going to return the punt, as he had done since Bernard left with an ankle injury. Smith was on the field in the punt return position. Then, at almost the last possible second, Bernard took his place. The punt was high, and your first inclination was that it might be too high for a return. Bernard caught it backing up. There was just one State defender close to him, and from watching Bernard these last two years, you knew instantly that first defender had no chance. There were lots of white jerseys on the near side of the field, but Bernard took off running the other way, which instantly gave him space from six pursuers. On the far side of the field, there was nothing but blockers and turf. Two key blocks gave Bernard a little room, and he high-stepped through a last-ditch tackling effort inside the 10-yard line, by which time everyone was screaming so loudly that it would've been impossible to hear a referee's whistle anyway.
I'm not exactly sure what happened next, because I was too busy high-fiving and hugging anyone who happened to be within a Bryn Renner screen pass of me. That's the kind of momentum-building play Carolina football needed. The Tar Heels can't go to a bowl. They can't play in the ACC championship game. But over the offseason, and during spring practice, and next summer when season tickets are being sold, every single time Bernard's punt return is shown, every Carolina fan will instantly know exactly where they were when it happened. It was the first hug-a-stranger moment of pure joy at Kenan Stadium since Connor Barth's kick against Miami in 2004.
Here, you need to relive it again. Watch both replays so you can be sure to hear Jones Angell's call of the play.
2. As it should, most of Saturday's attention will go to Gio Bernard for playing one of the best games in Tar Heel history. Quietly, though, he got solid backup from A.J. Blue, who rumbled for 32 yards on four carries and caught a pass for nine yards. Blue's biggest contribution, however, came early in the fourth quarter, when he replaced a winded Bernard after the latter had gotten the ball inside the Wolfpack red zone. On second and goal on the State 7 on a day when Carolina had some struggles inside the 20, Bryn Renner lined up in the shotgun, with Blue to his right. Just before the ball was snapped, Wolfpack safety Brandon Bishop crept up to the line of scrimmage, then blitzed straight towards the Tar Heel quarterback. Blue alertly came from the far side of the formation and picked up Bishop bearing down on Renner's blind (left) side, knocking Bishop's feet out from under him and giving Renner time to complete a touchdown pass to Sean Tapley.
Without that block, Bishop almost certainly had a sack, and the Tar Heels would've been facing third and goal from more than 10 yards away. It didn't earn a "Bluuuuuuuuue" chant from the Kenan crowd, as some of his other runs did, but it might have been the tailback's biggest play of the day.
3. When State fans go back and look at the final 90 seconds of that game, Tom O'Brien should get some heat. On a day when his pass offense went up and down the field at will, he chose to sit on the ball after getting it back in a 35-35 game with about 90 seconds left. Part of the credit should go to Kevin Reddick, whose first-down sack of Mike Glennon seemed to change the Wolfpack game plan. Reddick's sack made it second and 17 and seemed to change the Wolfpack mindset.
Instead of trying to score, they simply tried to run out the clock and play for overtime--with dismal results. Then, punting to the Tar Heels with 30 seconds remaining, O'Brien chose to kick the ball to Giovani Bernard, which, as we now know, was a legendarily bad choice. It will be interesting to hear from O'Brien if he was fooled by the fact that Roy Smith initially looked like he was going to be the punt returner on the play, until Bernard decided he wanted to be on the field for a potentially decisive play. You know the rest.