CHAPEL HILL — While Giovani Bernard ran up the sideline and into the legend of the North Carolina-N.C. State football rivalry at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, his teammates on the Tar Heels sideline ran with him.
They swarmed him in the back of the end zone, after Bernards 74-yard punt return with 13 seconds remaining broke a tie and gave North Carolina an improbable 43-35 victory against the Wolfpack.
He just kept running, kept running, Sylvester Williams, the Tar Heels senior defensive tackle, said. The little guy ran for his life, man. He ran for his life.
That wasnt true, though. Bernard didnt run for his life. He said later he ran for Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels seniors, who had never experienced victory against N.C. State.
He ran for his coach, Larry Fedora, and a staff of assistant coaches who have attempted to change the programs culture in their first season.
Bernard ran for a team that had experienced five consecutive losses against the Wolfpack, and for a group of fans, students, boosters and alumni who had long grown tired of hearing about those defeats.
I still cant believe it, Bernard said about 25 minutes after he provided one of the most memorable endings to any North Carolina-N.C. State game.
Im still shaking right now We just wanted this. We wanted this for our university, our new staff. We wanted this for coach Fedora. And especially the seniors.
The dramatic ending was fitting, perhaps, given the events that led to it. Games between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack rarely lack for twists and momentum shifts, and the one on Saturday featured plenty of both.
North Carolina (6-3, 3-2 ACC) built a 25-7 lead in the first quarter, when it amassed 227 yards of offense. The Tar Heels used creative plays to set up both of their first two touchdowns, which came on an 8-yard run from Bernard and a 45-yard run from Erik Highsmith, who scored on a reverse.
Theyve been spending all year getting ready for us, N.C. State coach Tom OBrien said. You expect them to blitz and come out with that in the first quarter. Thats the way these games go; you have to survive it.
The Wolfpack did. N.C. State (5-3, 2-2) at one point scored 28 consecutive points, and took a 28-25 lead midway through the second quarter on Mike Glennons 83-yard touchdown pass to Tobias Palmer, who was wide open behind the Tar Heels secondary.
The Wolfpack extended its lead to 35-25 in the third quarter when Glennon, who completed 29 of his 52 attempts for 467 yards and five touchdowns, connected with Bryan Underwood on a 55-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining in the third. All the while, Fedora paced the sideline, repeating a line to his players.
I said, no matter what the score is right now, its still going to come down to the last possession of the game, Fedora said.
North Carolina cut into the lead with Bryn Renners 3-yard touchdown pass to Sean Tapley early in the fourth quarter, and Casey Barth kicked a 34-yard field goal to tie the game at 35 with 1:24 to play. North Carolina forced a Wolfpack punt, and Bernard, who had injured his right ankle early in the third quarter, demanded to have a chance to return it.
He caught it, looked to his right and saw a wall of navy blue jerseys belonging to his teammates.
Thats my favorite punt return, Bernard said of the mechanics of the play. Once I saw that, I had to get in there. I had to tell myself to get in there no matter how bad my ankle was hurting.
Kendrick Singleton and Quinshad Davis, a pair of freshmen, had the first two blocks that freed Bernard, who ran for 135 yards and finished with 304 all-purpose yards. Tre Boston, the junior safety, blocked two Wolfpack players by himself.
When I turned around after I laid a few blocks, I just put my hands up in the air, Boston said.
Jonathan Cooper, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman, was one of many North Carolina players who were watching from the sideline. As Bernard sprinted toward the end zone, Cooper and his teammates did, too.
Cooper, who has started 44 games at North Carolina, had endured four losses against N.C. State. The night before this game, during a team meeting he spilled his heart out, Renner said.
(I was) just saying how much the game meant to me and how difficult its been to put up with losing all those games and to hear about it constantly from everybody, Cooper said. Just told them that it was bigger than hate this game was about pride.
Cooper said he fought back his own tears afterward, but others werent so successful.
There was a bunch of hugging, some tears shed by some of the seniors Cooper said. I mean, it was such an exciting feeling after the team prayer. Coach Fedora, thats the least words Ive ever seen him have.
There wasnt much he could have said. Not after this. North Carolina finished with 570 yards offense, and N.C. State with 534. Both teams seemed in control. And both teams lost control.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack and Tar Heels had been playing for nearly four hours and overtime seemed likely. But then Bernard stepped onto field, and into the history of this rivalry.
I started crying on the way to the end zone, he said.