Bernard punt return takes place among UNC's greatest plays

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2012 

UNC running back Giovani Bernard (26) returns a punt 74-yards for a touchdown in the closing moments of North Carolina's 43-35 victory over N.C. State at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, October 27, 2012.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com

— On the walls of the press box at North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium, some of the great football plays in school history live on. There’s Connor Barth after his 42-yard field goal beat Miami in 2004. There’s the North Carolina defense, standing up N.C. State’s T.A. McLendon at the goal line during the final moments of another victory that same season.

There’s little doubt that, eventually, a blown-up photo of Giovani Bernard will take its place alongside those and others. It will show Bernard sprinting toward the end zone during his 74-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave North Carolina a dramatic 43-35 victory against N.C. State on Saturday.(This article continues below the video.)

The UNC-N.C. State football rivalry hasn’t lacked for dramatic moments and memorable plays. People who have followed the rivalry for decades can still remember Lou Holtz, then in his first season as Wolfpack coach, calling for a two-point conversion late in the 1972 game.

That came after N.C. State scored a touchdown with 10 seconds to play, but the conversion failed and North Carolina held on for a 34-33 victory. The Tar Heels won in 1995, too, after another late N.C. State two-point conversion attempt that failed.

In more recent times, the Wolfpack beat North Carolina amid late-game theatrics in both 2007 and 2010.

There was the late-game defensive stand in 2007, when the Wolfpack prevailed 31-27. And, in 2010, N.C. State erased a nine-point third quarter deficit with Russell Wilson’s 2-yard Hail Mary to Owen Spencer, followed moments later by T.J. Graham’s 87-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

Before Saturday, though, there had never been a play in the history of the rivalry quite like Bernard’s punt return. One moment, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack were tied at 35 and seemed headed for overtime. The next, Bernard used a wall of blockers on his way to a 74-yard return, which ended with a touchdown with just 13 seconds to play.

The moment instantly became one of the most memorable plays in the rivalry’s history. That Bernard made the play with an injured right ankle will only add to the lore. Bernard suffered the injury early in the third quarter, but asked for a chance to make the punt return late in the fourth quarter.

Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ first-year coach, obliged. Fedora acknowledged afterward that Bernard wasn’t at full strength during the return. But, Fedora said, “He willed himself to be.”

“He’s a guy that when a play needs to be made, he wants to be out there,” Fedora said of Bernard, who didn’t field punts – until the final one – after he suffered the ankle injury. “He wants the ball in his hands. I promise you he was always one of those kids that was wanting to take the last-second shot in the backyard. He’s just one of those guys.”

This wasn’t the backyard, though. This was North Carolina’s most important game of the season, and the most important moment of that game.

Throughout the days leading into the game against N.C. State, the Tar Heels were reminded constantly of their five-game losing streak against the Wolfpack. Entering the week, Fedora, seeking a motivational edge, had decorated his team’s locker room in N.C. State colors, complete with red and white streamers and balloons.

Months before, in August, Bernard spotted one of N.C. State’s “Our State” billboards. He took a picture, posted it on his Instagram page and wrote a caption: “This junk coming down real soon.”

Still, North Carolina players, ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, attempted to downplay the significance of their game against the Wolfpack in the days leading to it. Afterward, though, there was no denying what the victory meant.

“This game was our Super Bowl game,” Bernard said on Saturday. “… For us, this was our Super Bowl, just knowing that we don’t have that postseason play. This is something that we wanted, and we were able to accomplish it.”

Bryn Renner, the Tar Heel’s junior quarterback, said he “absolutely cried” after the game. Tar Heels defensive tackle Sylvester Williams described his team’s victory as “the most exciting game I’ve played in.”

“When you’ve got a guy like Giovani Bernard, the best running back in the nation, it’s always something happening,” Williams said.

On Saturday, that something was perhaps the most memorable moment in the 102-game history of an old rivalry.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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