Remembering 'The Return': Punt, result motivate NC State

csmith@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

— Hanging in Brandon Pittman’s dorm room is a photo, a not-so-gentle reminder of one of the most devastating moments in his football career.

The junior linebacker was walking off the field when he crouched near the 20-yard line to catch his breath and regain control of his emotions following Gio Bernard’s 74-yard game-winning punt return to clinch a 43-35 victory over N.C. State — North Carolina’s first win in the rivalry in six years.

“I just remember thinking, ‘How did he just do that?’” Pittman said of the moment. “There was no way he should have been able to do that because we were all where we needed to be. We’re just determined now to never let that happen again.”

The decision to punt

Several N.C. State players who will face UNC on Saturday were on the field for The Return last year, including punter Wil Baumann.

N.C. State was 30 seconds, a fair catch and a defensive stand from forcing overtime.

Immediately after Bernard’s signature moment, the questions started: Why would N.C. State punt to UNC’s game-breaker with the game on the line?

Baumann said there was never any hesitation or talk to kick away from Bernard in the final minute. The plan was to punt it high enough to force a fair catch.

N.C. State had reason to be confident in the strategy. The Pack hadn’t allowed a punt return longer than 8 yards all season.

Baumann had punted eight times already, and the Tar Heels had returned just two for a total of 8 yards. His longest punt soared 52 yards. Earlier he forced the Heels to fair catch at their 10.

Everything changed, the game, Bernard’s reputation as a playmaker, on his ninth punt.

“We just wanted to get a fair catch and we weren’t even talking about kicking it away from him,” he said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. He didn’t fair catch it and we all know what happened next.”

The warning: ‘You better contain him’

Dave Archer, who called the game with Tim Brant, warned viewers that Baumann was punting with a stiff wind at his back and better not try to drive it, which would give Bernard time to sort things out.

“If you’re on the cover team,” Brant added, “you better contain him.”

Standing at his 11-yard line, Baumann received the snap and booted what Brant described as a “high tail-wagger” that soared to UNC’s 26. The official measurement was 48 yards.

When Bernard caught it, Juston Burris, the closest Wolfpack defender to him, was 6 yards away. Four other Wolfpack players, including David Amerson who had outside containment, were a few yards farther away.

Bernard had room to operate. He sprinted right, away from Burris and flying past Amerson, who couldn’t free himself from a block.

“He’s got a wall,” Brant shouted. “Look out!”

Bernard sprinted along the right sideline, in front of the Wolfpack bench, past Baumann, past a diving Brandan Bishop, into history.

“They just made a better play than us,” Baumann said. “The wall and the blocks they made were what set everything up. … I guess I could have put more hang time on the ball, but again they just made a good play.”

The aftermath

Much has changed since that punt. N.C. State changed coaches, replacing Tom O’Brien with Dave Doeren. Bernard jumped to the NFL and has been replaced in UNC’s backfield by A.J. Blue and Romar Morris.

Several new cast members will take the field Saturday. But the sting still remains for Pack players who witnessed one of the most memorable — or miserable —moments in the rivalry.

Burris said he’s seen the replay “over and over,” and adds he doesn’t want to see it happen again.

“That was a play that hurt everyone because we don’t want to lose to UNC,” Baumann said. “For it to happen that way made it that much worse for me and I’m sure everyone else on the field.”

And if it’s that painful, why exactly would Pittman want to be constantly reminded of that moment?

“It put a bad taste in my mouth and it’s something I want to wash out this weekend,” he said. “I can’t wait till that 12:30 kick off to get the next chapter started.”

Smith: 919-829-8941; Twitter: @RCorySmith

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