Amid difficult season, Heels knock off rival
OCT 27, 2012 7:12p ET
But it wasn't the same kind of sobbing that poured out after the last five times the Tar Heels took on rival North Carolina State. Those were tears of sadness. This was different.
North Carolina ended a five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack, who had done their share of flaunting in recent years. The Heels pulled off a 43-35 triumph in front of their home fans in dramatic fashion and earned a win that may serve as a landmark event that can give this frustrated program some breathing room for a change.
It couldn't have come in a more entertaining way for Carolina blue — or on this day Navy blue and a shiny chrome. Giovani Bernard's 74-yard game-winning punt return with 13 seconds left setting off a wild celebration.
But it wasn't just because of one return or the win alone. It was about a program putting a negative past in the rear-view mirror, while moving forward in a positive direction.
"This is huge," cornerback Tre Boston said. "This is really big for us."
Haunted by an NCAA investigation that began 28 months ago, which resulted in probation and a bowl ban this season, North Carolina has struggled generating positive news in any form. Add that it had lost five consecutive games to the Wolfpack, who hadn't made any bones about flaunting their recent domination in the series on billboards around the state, and the flood of emotion is understandable.
"I still can't believe it," Bernard said. "I'm still shaking right now. After that I started crying, I couldn't hold my emotions back."
Bernard and a few other Tar Heels said most everyone in the locker room was crying afterward. Different reasons were specifically given. But each player noted in some fashion what the program has been through.
The most embarrassing period in UNC athletic history coincided with its most baffling losing skid to a program it considers its younger brother. NC State and its base had twisted the knife so much that it only makes this turn of events that much more dramatic.
This was supposed to be NC State's best team, said its coach Tom O'Brien before the season began. On Saturday, the Pack owned a 35-25 lead in the fourth quarter after the Tar Heels went more than 2½ quarters without scoring.
But NCSU missed opportunities to put away a UNC team, which turned the ball over twice in the red zone and couldn't find a ground game until the final 10 minutes.
While UNC's season will end in three more games, suddenly it's in position to chase nine wins and go into the offseason feeling good about itself. On Saturday, first-year coach Larry Fedora made some terrific decisions down the stretch.
Fedora didn't let O'Brien run out the clock and play for overtime. The Tar Heels coach used his last two timeouts, forcing NC State to punt. The rest is history.
"That was a lot of fun," Fedora said.
Not for O'Brien, who should be criticized for giving Bernard a chance to return the punt. He had already generated 135 yards rushing and 95 receiving, and the redshirt sophomore returned one punt for a score earlier this season. He's too dangerous to kick to in that situation.
"He did," Bernard said. "He did what he had to do, and I did what I had to do."
Bernard's return was a signature moment in a career for a great player, in a season for a team trying to grow into its new philosophies, and for a program which has spent the last couple of years deflecting a never-ending parade of negatives.
UNC senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said this was the team's bowl victory, especially for the veterans. Now the Tar Heels must back this up by not letting down in remaining games at Virginia and Georgia Tech and at home vs. Maryland.
North Carolina can close 9-3 and maybe even be ranked. With the bowl ban behind it and the skid to NC State over, UNC can truly begin the rebounding process.
That's something the baby blues can truly cry tears of joy about.