UNC Football: An Afternoon to Remember


Charles Kuralt once eloquently stated that the crisp October nights were not what bound the University of the People together, but it was on Saturday, October 27, that one crisp October afternoon did.

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

The stage was set and all the pressure was on North Carolina. Arch rival NC State had won five in a row in the annual series and head coach Tom O’Brien was undefeated against the Tar Heels since he took the position. New Carolina head coach Larry Fedora would be charged with ending a streak that he had no responsibility creating, but nonetheless, the expectation for him was the same as it is for any Tar Heel coach going up against State. Win.

It was clear that North Carolina wanted to make a statement. The team donned the all navy uniforms that they save for big games and debuted brand new helmets which meant if the Heels were going to win, it would be with style.

From the opening kickoff, the energy was electric. The fans were doing everything in their power to aid in a victory that had been long overdue and the players obliged early. During the opening drive every play and every player that could result in points would be called on. The Tar Heels ran with Gio Bernard, hit the talented receivers from sideline to sideline and perfectly executed gadget plays for huge chunks of yards and scores. After a wild first quarter, North Carolina boasted a 25-7 lead and all things looked as if Carolina was going to issue a payback of epic proportions.

The crowd was energized and ecstatic. After five long years we were able to brush any worries of losing to NC State away and harmony would finally be able to exist again in Chapel Hill. However, sitting in the stands amongst the excitement there was still a small sense of unknown that lingered because we all knew too well that history was not on our side. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way.

Mike Glennon got comfortable. Very comfortable. His offensive line gave him all the protection in the world and North Carolina’s secondary was absolutely miserable. Too many times did the corners and safeties get burned on deep routes which included a 85 yard touchdown pass on one of State’s only third and long situations in the first three quarters. Too many times the defensive front failed to wrap up the running backs and suffered extra yards because of it. All of a sudden it was 25-14, then 25-21, then State was up 28-25. The wind had been completely taken out of our sails.

How could we let this happen? We knew Mike Glennon was a good quarterback, but he wasn’t this good. Was he? We knew the defensive secondary has had some issues in the past, but they weren’t this bad. Were they? Either way, what was a three possession lead turned into a three point deficit at halftime in a matter of 15 minutes. Every fan in the stadium wearing blue just sat there, during the entire intermission, shaking their heads. Why can we not beat this team?

The third quarter was probably the biggest tease of the bunch. Coach Fedora clearly gave his defense the message that their gameplay was horrendous, but this time, the offense was stagnant. State and Carolina traded blows on the defensive side of the ball for practically 15 minutes. Bryn Renner and Gio Bernard found little to no room to work and if they did, it was followed by a costly turnover. Glennon on the other hand found plenty of space, but his receivers kept dropping his passes. We were getting breaks, but we all knew that if the offense couldn’t find a way to score then Glennon would eventually make us pay for it. With about 39 seconds left in the third, he did.

Bryan Underwood got loose in the secondary and broke free for 55 yards and a score to put the Pack up 10 with a quarter to go. If North Carolina was going to make a move, it had to be now. We knew it, the coaches knew it and more importantly, Gio Bernard knew it. Like a clap of lightning, Gio began to assert his dominance on the NC State defense and put the team straight onto his back. He began slicing and dicing, finding holes and breaking tackles putting Carolina in position to make this a game again. His showmanship provided the other players with confidence and Renner was able to hit his receivers for moderate gains down the field and converting some crucial third downs. After getting all the way down to the three yard line, Renner finally converted when he found Sean Tapley in the end zone. Now it’s 35-32 and we’ve got ourselves back in this thing.

Now Carolina needed the defense to step up and create some pressure for Glennon which was something he hadn’t felt all day. The pass rush was primarily coming from the front four and nothing else and in the stands we were perplexed. Why are we not blitzing anyone? If we can get Glennon off balance, we can get the ball back, but we need to send somebody. Coach Fedora must have heard our pleas because he immediately turned to his captain to get the job done and Kevin Reddick took the call and went into beast mode. Suddenly, the State offensive line couldn’t figure out how to prevent the senior linebacker from getting into the backfield. Reddick registered a sack and pressured Glennon to throw six straight incompletions allowing the offense to get another shot. For once, North Carolina would be able to control its destiny.

Fortunately for North Carolina, when Reddick wasn’t on the field, Gio Bernard was. From his own 39, he sprang free and into the secondary for 38 yards on the ensuing drive. Briefly, we all thought he was going to take it to the house, but it wasn’t meant to be just yet. His heroics had gotten UNC into position to at least tie this game. After a first down completion to Eric Ebron, the Heels had a first and goal, but just could not cash in and on third down Renner was dropped for a huge sack. The Tar Heels’ hopes rested on the sure foot of Casey Barth to keep this game within reach. And with the wind in his face, Barth delivered from 34 yards out. We were tied.

As you know, in a rivalry game this tight, you must play till the clock strikes zero and unfortunately NC State had time. They got the ball on their 25 yard line with 1:24 to play and a full stock of timeouts. All they needed was three points to win. Everyone is Kenan Stadium seemed to be screaming at the top of their lungs while holding their breath at the same time. The game had provided that kind of tension. On first down, Glennon took the snap and dropped back to pass…….SACK! Kevin Reddick sprang free again! What a huge play from the Tar Heel captain to prevent some type of disaster. Glennon was slow to get up and Coach O’Brien was slow to call a play. He was playing for overtime. As fans, we were relieved that State would not take it from us in regulation, but overtime in this type of game is dangerous and best avoided if possible. State’s next play was a hand off to Tony Creecy for 4 yards. This confirmed Tom O’Brien’s game plan. Overtime. However, Larry Fedora wasn’t having it. He called a timeout to stop the clock and then again one play later. North Carolina had forced NC State to punt with 30 seconds left deep in their own territory.

North Carolina had an opportunity. All they had to do was to secure the punt and get 25-30 yards downfield before time expired so they could allow their senior place kicker to win them the game. However, that plan had one small hitch, Gio Bernard. Bernard caught the high punt from Wil Bauman and cut right towards the sideline. He picked up a nice block and got into some space. This return was looking good, but he couldn’t take it all the way back. Could he? Bernard turned the corner and picked up another block, ran about five more yards and picked up another block and now he had nothing, but green! The 50! The 40! He had one man to beat! The 20! He skips away and he’s going to score! The five! TOUCHDOWN!

What happened next was pure jubilation. North Carolina had just ended a five game losing streak to their hated rival in perhaps the most spectacular fashion I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve never heard Kenan Stadium that loud before. It was as if all 60,000 plus fans had just won the lottery and become millionaires at the same time. I was hugging fans that I had never met before in my life, but we didn’t care because we had just won. Nothing else mattered.

What I experienced that crisp October afternoon will be remembered forever. On that day, a legend in Gio Bernard wasn’t born, but confirmed, a new head coach made his mark on a rivalry that had been so lopsided over the past few years, and a team was finally able to remove a weight that had been on their shoulders for far too long. Fortunately, for the first time in five years, I was able to drive home without saying the words “what if?”

Go Heels!