Tudor: For Tar Heels’ Gio Bernard, a moment of Justice

ctudor@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 

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UNC's Giovani Bernard (26) is embraced by teammates including Nic Platt (86) following the Tar Heels' 43-35 victory over N.C. State on Saturday October 27, 2012 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

— Very few, if any, of the 62,000 people in Kenan Stadium on Saturday were around when Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice played football for North Carolina.

Justice, who died in 2003 at age 79, played his last game for the Tar Heels in 1949.

There’s a statue outside the stadium to commemorate his impact on the school and the program. Songs and books were written about Justice’s ability to dumbfound defenders and deliver sensational game-changing plays.

If you dig long enough, you can find grainy game films of his long runs. He looks a lot like Gio Bernard in Saturday’s 43-35 comeback win over N.C. State.

Playing with an injured right ankle, Bernard inserted himself into the lineup with 30 seconds left and returned a punt 74 yards for a game-winning score that punctuated what probably will rate as the most memorable game in series history.

It was a moment that left players on both sides of the rivalry in tears, including Bernard.

“I started crying. I couldn’t hold my emotions back,” the 5-foot-10 red-shirt sophomore said. “We were down and we wanted to make something happen.”

After five straight losses to the Wolfpack (5-3, 2-2 ACC), the Tar Heels (6-3, 3-2) led 25-7 in the first quarter but had to come back from a 35-25 deficit in the fourth quarter.

Bernard’s stunning performance didn’t just save the day for his team. It also allowed first-year coach Larry Fedora to dodge what would have been an onslaught of howling from the fan base.

Having lost 33-30 the week before to Duke, there was every reason to think the Carolina defense would not get caught flat-footed against two neighborhood rivals in successive weeks.

Not so.

Until the final several minutes, Fedora’s pass defense was in the midst of a perfectly miserable effort. Pack quarterback Mike Glennon had five touchdown passes and 467 yards even though his receivers dropped at least five passes that would have accounted for another 100 yards and possibly two more scores.

“He was just picking us apart, but we finally were able to get to him and bring some pressure late in the game,” said Carolina defensive lineman Sylvester Williams. “That was the key to our defense – finally getting to him some and making him hurry.”

With the Tar Heels on probation and ineligible for any sort of postseason participation, Fedora had pointed to the game against State since he left Southern Miss to take the job on Dec. 8, 2011.

Throughout the spring and offseason, Fedora’s countdown calendar morphed into a rallying cry for fans and players.

A loss in Kenan a week after losing to Duke would have made for a depressing winter and spring for the new coach.

UNC’s three remaining foes – Georgia Tech, Virginia and Maryland – wouldn’t have been nearly enough to pump energy back into a fan base already in shellshock. Another loss to State would have made his mission much, much more difficult to accomplish in the short and long term.

“The players bought in and they believed … that’s the reason we won the football game,” Fedora said.

And thanks to the win, Fedora will find it easier to sell his mission to fans and recruits.

Bernard may nor may not be back for a chance to beat State twice. A third-year player, he’s eligible to enter the NFL draft and almost certainly would be selected during the first couple of rounds.

Although he missed losses to Wake Forest and Louisville early in the season, Bernard has sidestepped his way into the ACC player of the year picture and even could land a few Heisman Trophy votes.

Odds are no one will write an “All the Way Gio Gio” tune. But the odds also are that no one in Kenan on Saturday will soon forget that punt return.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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