DeCock: Bold move blows up in O'Brien's face

ldecock@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 

N.C. State's Tom O'Brien walks off the field after UNC's 43-35 victory at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, October 27, 2012.


— It isn’t often fate goes flying by only mere inches away.

When Giovani Bernard turned to his left, curling around two blocks and breaking upfield, he streaked past increasingly stunned faces on the N.C. State sideline on his way to the end zone. These were players and coaches who only moments earlier had been savoring the prospect of a sixth straight victory over North Carolina but would instead be serenaded with chants of “Gio! Gio!”

Somehow, N.C. State contrived to lose a game it led by a field goal, in possession of the ball, with five minutes to play. Led by the amazing Bernard, the Tar Heels scored 18 unanswered points, ended a five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack and secured a 43-35 final-minute victory, only a week after Duke did the same to them.

“To lose in that fashion, to an in-state rival, to Carolina, it hurts,” N.C. State offensive tackle R.J. Mattes said. “Anytime you lose to a rival, it’s not a good feeling. We’ve got a lot of things to work on, and I don’t blame that last return for the loss.”

N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien can’t be accused of playing it safe. He called three straight pass plays with less than five minutes to go – immediately after Shadrach Thornton secured a first down with three gritty runs – in an attempt to go for the kill. And he decided to punt to Bernard, looking to force a fair catch, with 30 seconds to go.

Those decisions might have secured the win for N.C. State. Instead, they backfired horribly, and O’Brien will face the wrath of an angry fan base that has become accustomed to victory in this game and thought another was imminent. (As his predecessor once memorably said, “What critics?”)

So how did it happen?

N.C. State had the ball with 6:47 to play, up 35-32. Thornton got the ball three times and ground out a first down. N.C. State then threw three passes, all incomplete. On the third, a deep shot down the left sideline, Bryan Underwood was wide open but Sylvester Williams hit Mike Glennon before he could get set.

“Mike got rid of the ball earlier than he wanted to, and it was just a disconnect on timing,” Underwood said. “It was a free release for me. The ball just sailed farther out than in.”

Asked if he had any regrets about the play-calling at that point, O’Brien said he had none.

“We wanted to continue to attack,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t think we could sit on a three-point lead. We had been successful throwing the ball the whole time, and we had a chance. We had Underwood running wide open on the boundary and missed it.”

There’s no question that’s admirable on third-and-10, but after Thornton had fought for one first down, why not give him a shot at working for another?

That question will be posed as often as the other big quandary: Why not punt the ball out of bounds, instead of high and deep to Bernard? The dynamic back already had 230 yards of offense and two touchdowns, although he hadn’t returned a punt since injuring his right ankle early in the third quarter.

“If we punt the ball, put it up in the air and hang it up there and get down there and cover it so he makes the fair catch, that was the idea,” O’Brien said. “That’s what we intended to do.”

That’s the explanation, but the questions will linger as long as the unexpected pain of the loss, and as long the unrestrained joy of the Tar Heels continues to reverberate.

DeCock:, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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