In a rivalry that has more than its share of oddball moments, from controversy at the goal line to a 2-yard Hail Mary to a punt return that has its own special place in history, it’s hard to figure which part of Saturday’s madness will be the part that lives on in memory.
There is so much to choose from, it’s hard to even put the possibilities in order.
Reggie Gallaspy’s five touchdowns for N.C. State?
The missed field goal in overtime that was a too-perfect summation of everything that has gone wrong with North Carolina’s season?
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A comedy-of-errors first half that included a 1-yard punt among other shenanigans in the rain?
The first fourth-quarter comeback of Ryan Finley’s Wolfpack career?
Or the disgraceful brawl in the end zone after Gallaspy’s winning score, the one Larry Fedora tried to deny even happened?
Take your pick, really. Could be any or all of them. Or this 34-28 N.C. State win could go down in the books as Fedora’s last game in charge, something that remains unlikely but is anything but resolved.
It was North Carolina’s fourth loss this season by a single possession and N.C. State’s third straight win at Kenan Stadium, as if Gio Bernard’s punt return expended all of the Tar Heels’ home karma in this rivalry at once.
“It stinks,” North Carolina linbacker Cole Holcomb said. “This is a game you put everything into and to have it (end) like that it hurts.”
By the time the punches were thrown, as N.C. State’s bench-clearing celebration morphed into a bench-clearing brawl in front of the long-emptied North Carolina student section, the direction of both teams – the Tar Heels in this cursed season, N.C. State’s ascendency in the rivalry both as winners of nine of the past 12 and in recruiting within these borders – had only been reinforced.
The cries for Fedora’s head will only intensify after watching a lead evaporate in the fourth quarter in yet another close loss, and perhaps they will indeed be answered. There’s a case to be made either way. The argument for a change is obvious, not the least of which is it has now been two years and 19 days since North Carolina beat a Power 5 team that isn’t Pittsburgh.
The argument for the status quo isn’t as clear, but beyond the financial considerations, the Tar Heels return 19 of Saturday’s starters including freshman quarterback Cade Fortin. There’s room for immediate improvement no matter who is charge next fall.
Not that it’s any consolation for North Carolina after watching N.C. State fans occupy Kenan Stadium yet again. Even Finley got into the act, veering away from his usual platitudes to proclaim it “Carter-Finley North,” even if it’s really more to the west but he’s new to this sort of talk.
Finley is also new to the circumstances, having yet to deliver a fourth-quarter comeback in his first nine tries with the Wolfpack, most recently in the season-savaging loss to Wake Forest. But Finley delivered with six minutes to go, thanks in part to a circus catch on the sideline by Jakobi Meyers that needed a replay review to prove he had indeed caught the ball.
N.C. State’s overtime drive – after Freeman Jones’ hooked field goal from 37 yards out, yet another North Carolina innovation in excruciating ways to lose – was almost all Gallaspy, right down to the final carry for his fifth touchdown, a just reward for a senior whose career hasn’t always gone smoothly.
“Reggie’s got heart,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “I was just hugging him in the locker room and my sons were next to me, and I told him I hoped my boys have the same heart he has.”
As N.C. State’s celebration amid the North Carolina players reached critical mass, punches were thrown and suspensions are inevitable. Fedora said “there was no fight, to my knowledge” and it was just “their team celebrating and our team celebrating,” although what exactly the Tar Heels have to celebrate after this game or this season remains unclear. Which may be why Fedora then attempted to clarify-without-clarifying that “my team wasn’t celebrating.”
The brawl was in roughly the same spot where a fight broke out after Russell Wilson’s 2-yard Hail Mary to Owen Spencer, eight years ago. And Gallaspy punched in the winning touchdown in almost exactly the same spot where T.A. McLendon fumbled in 2004, one play after he was controversially ruled down at the 1. Fourteen years later, that play lives in memory as much as any.
Something from this game will enter the lore of the rivalry, someday. At this point, there’s too many possibilities to figure out exactly what history will pick.