In a season when Duke and East Carolina are vying for the title of best football team in the state, it was hard to get too excited about a rivalry that has delivered more than its share of exciting moments in recent years.
North Carolina and N.C. State saved the drama for after the game this time. The Tar Heels’ 27-19 win Saturday may have lacked aesthetic appeal, but they made up for it by celebrating the victory by stomping on the Wolfpack’s new midfield logo, with the Strutting Wolf’s head centered inside an outline of the state of North Carolina.
Tar Heels tight end Eric Ebron tried to inject some fire into this year’s game with a stream of Twitter comments designed to provoke ire, but his first touch of the game was a fumble, a cardinal sin in the trash-talking business. It wasn’t until afterward things really got interesting.
As Tim Scott and Tre Boston started dancing on the wolf’s image and slapped the ground, to be joined by others, their teammates chanted, “Whose state? Our state!” in a direct rebuke to N.C. State’s “This is our state” promotional campaign.
“It was just a spur of the moment thing, with all the seniors right there, to be able to end this series on a good note at their place,” North Carolina defensive lineman Kareem Martin said.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren wasn’t particularly happy about that celebration, nor were some of his players as pushing and shoving was quickly snuffed out, but they had every chance to prevent it. Doeren bears a share of the blame for the loss after calling a disastrous fake punt deep in N.C. State territory with the Wolfpack up 10-7 early, while he pointed a finger at Brandon Mitchell’s two second-half interceptions.
North Carolina has won two straight as the Tar Heels attempt to rebound from a 1-5 start; N.C. State has lost four straight and appears headed for a long, painful conclusion to the season. Neither team came into Saturday with any momentum to speak of, and the result was a clunker of a game, full of errors and penalties and a seemingly endless string of punts. Both teams made too many mistakes. The Tar Heels just managed to make less.
“It was tough,” North Carolina offensive lineman James Hurst said. “When you don’t have any good drives or possessions in a row you can kind of get down on yourself. We knew what kind of game it was going to be.”
So instead of big-play drama – an option pass from receiver Ryan Switzer to Quinshad Davis for a second-quarter North Carolina touchdown was the brightest highlight – the game’s most memorable moment arrived afterward.
The Tar Heels’ midfield celebration will not be forgotten by the home team anytime soon.
“Total disrespect,” N.C. State cornerback Juston Burris said.
“I’m going to remember what they did on the 50-yard line after the game for the next 364 days, and I’m going to look forward to playing them next year,” Doeren said.
Still, when you claim the state, you’d better be prepared to defend it and you’d better be prepared to face the consequences, verbal and otherwise, when you don’t. That’s how a rivalry works.
“If this really is your state,” Ebron said afterward, “then come prove it.”
N.C. State had the upper hand for a long time. Now the Tar Heels have won two in a row, including their first at Carter-Finley since 2005. That speaks louder than any celebration, any slogan.