The seniors who will take the field Saturday for their final game against North Carolina or N.C. State have a heavy burden to carry. Over the past three years, they have been part of what may be the most memorable three-year cycle in the rivalry in a long time. How can Saturday possibly measure up?
From Gio Bernard’s punt return to the “Our State” fiasco to N.C. State’s on-field taking and off-field talking last season in Chapel Hill, it has been three pretty good years of controversy, drama and bitterness.
Which is what makes a rivalry a rivalry.
And this one seems to keep getting better.
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“Same players on both sides,” N.C. State defensive end Mike Rose said, “so this year should be more of the same.”
“There’s going to be a lot of hype, a lot of beef on Twitter,” North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams said. “Things are going to get fired up.”
North Carolina has always been N.C. State’s biggest rival, and while there have been moments over the years where the Tar Heels and their fans may have downplayed things against the Wolfpack, there’s no question N.C. State is North Carolina’s biggest rival in football right now, as Tar Heels linebacker Jeff Schoettmer observed this week.
“I just don’t like their football program,” Schoettmer said. “I don’t want to say anything bad about their school. I just like beating them.”
N.C. State winning five of six under Tom O’Brien had something to do with that, a sequence that had some enjoyable friction of its own, from the frostiness between O’Brien and Butch Davis to interim coach Everett Withers’ ill-timed “flagship” comments that provoked O’Brien’s “triple play” rebuttal mocking North Carolina’s NCAA issues, a comment worthy of the trash-talking Hall of Fame.
O’Brien’s streak against the Tar Heels came to an end with Bernard’s punt return, a play this season’s North Carolina seniors remember like it just happened. With 13 seconds left, Bernard took the punt 74 yards down the N.C. State sideline to clinch a 43-35 win, while on the opposite sideline, Schoettmer was making a run of his own.
“After he crossed the end zone, everyone kind of huddled in front of the student section,” Schoettmer said. “I was in full sprint down there.”
Williams didn’t wait that long to catch up with Bernard.
“I was running along with him!” he said.
A year later, N.C. State’s “Our State” advertising campaign rankled the Tar Heels, who took out their anger not only on the Wolfpack with a 27-19 win, but by stomping on the special midfield logo – the outline of the state with an image of the Strutting Wolf inside – after securing the victory.
“It was definitely fun to beat them at their place two years ago,” Schoettmer said. “With some drama at the end.”
For N.C. State’s seniors, that memory angers them more than Bernard’s punt return.
“You don’t forget about something like that,” Rose said.
The Wolfpack’s seniors have good memories of their own, to be sure. Motivated in part by North Carolina’s antics at Carter-Finley Stadium a year earlier, they started talking early in the week last season and kept on talking after a resounding 35-7 win at Kenan Stadium, a game notable less for the action on the field than the action that surrounded it.
“It was bad,” Williams said. “That feeling, a rival team that came in here and stomped you on home ground. It was tough for us.”
For the seniors on both sides, so much of the three games in which they have participated has been memorable, or in some cases hard to forget. It sets a high bar for them as they exit the rivalry Saturday, trying to top the past three years in their fourth and final try.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock