Sometimes, a number takes on a life of its own.
UNC's football team just hopes this one has an expiration date.
The 41-10 score from N.C. State's dismantling of North Carolina at Kenan Stadium last year has become the ultimate trump card for Wolfpack fans in their back-and-forth trash talk with UNC supporters. Saturday's rematch at State's Carter-Finley Stadium, the regular-season finale for both teams, offers the bowl-bound Tar Heels an opportunity to defuse the taunts.
Former North Carolina All-America offensive guard Pat Crowley said he cringed when he saw the score mentioned again this week in his hometown newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal.
"We did some good things last year," said Crowley, a four-year letterman on UNC's team in the late 1980s. "And then it was like getting kicked in the gut."
That blowout loss was one of the few blemishes during an otherwise outstanding 12 months of athletic triumphs at North Carolina. Quarterback T.J. Yates said the Tar Heels have tried to forget last year's game, while linebacker Bruce Carter admitted that the team was embarrassed.
"We didn't play our game," Carter said. "We weren't ourselves. It was embarrassing to not only us, but our fans especially."
For all the angst in Chapel Hill, Wolfpack fans in Raleigh savored the 41-10 score all year. This weekend, though, the annual rivalry game must stand in as a de facto bowl game in a disappointing season for the Wolfpack.
No. 23 North Carolina (8-3, 4-3 ACC) enters this week's game with a bowl trip already sewn up. N.C. State (4-7, 1-6) was among the early favorites to win the ACC Atlantic Division but has seen its title hopes buried in an avalanche of injuries and poor play on defense and special teams.
"This has been a disappointing season," N.C. State senior safety Bobby Floyd said. "We came into it with a lot of high expectations, and not just from the fans and the media but from within our team. I don't think we've met those expectations."
Because those expectations were so high, this football season has been the low point for N.C. State fans who have weathered their share of disappointment. It's the fourth straight losing season for the Wolfpack in football. In men's basketball, N.C. State has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament the last three seasons, while North Carolina has two NCAA titles and three Final Four trips since 2005.
James Henderson, who runs Pack Pride, an independent online site devoted to N.C. State athletics, said fans on his message boards have relied on 41-10 to defend themselves.
"That happens a lot," Henderson said. "You either get that or the fact that [UNC football coach] Butch [Davis] hasn't beaten Tom (O'Brien) in his two years."
Inside Carolina editor Ben Sherman said that since September, UNC fans' attention on his independent Tar Heels-devoted site has turned to their own team, which started 3-0, lost three of four and now has won four straight.
Before this season began, however, N.C. State fans who visited the Tar Heels message boards often threw down the 41-10 hammer.
"It was a decisive score," Sherman said, "so it's the leading argument."
Nonetheless, N.C. State graduate Banks Talley of Raleigh said many of his fellow alumni believe too much emphasis is placed on the Wolfpack's annual game against the Tar Heels. And yet Talley, whose wife Noelle graduated from North Carolina, called the 41-10 score "awesome" and admitted to a period of gloating afterward.
He will spend this weekend with a group of Tar Heels fans and joked that he might have to go canoeing to get away. As much as he wants another win over UNC, though, Talley would prefer a winning season to one win over State's rival.
"The lunatic fringe of the State fan group only cares about beating Carolina," Talley said, "and to me, there are bigger things than that."
Even if that's the case, there is nothing bigger than the N.C. State-UNC rivalry this week. Floyd said he started hearing about it minutes after a loss at Virginia Tech last week.
As he headed toward the tunnel, with his helmet and shoulder pads still on, N.C. State fans in the crowd in Blacksburg, Va., implored his team to "Beat Carolina."
History shows that underdog N.C. State is extremely unlikely to post another 41-10, even if the Wolfpack can pull off an upset. Last year was the only time in the series that the team that finished with fewer wins won the rivalry game by more than 21 points.
That's why Crowley, the former Tar Heels All-American, is looking forward to putting 41-10 behind him.
"Let's let it ride," he said, "and play it again."
Staff writer J.P. Giglio contributed to this report.
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