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October 28, 2012

Stuff of Legend

There have been plenty of incredible moments and electrifying performances over the 80-plus years they've been playing football games at Kenan Stadium.

Those old enough to remember it will quickly point out Don McCauley's record-breaking day back in 1970 against Duke, and others talk about Kelvin Bryant's touchdown spree against ECU in 1981.

Those a little younger recall great games such as when the Tar Heels dominated Florida State 41-9 in the first UNC football game following September 11, 2001, and that incredible night in 2004 when Carolina knocked off undefeated Miami.

You can now add UNC's 43-35 triumph over N.C. State Saturday in the annals of those all-time great games and individual performances in Kenan Stadium, because what Giovani Bernard was able to do against the Wolfpack is and will be the stuff of legend.

It's the kind of thing where young children who where there for Bernard's game-winning 74-yard return, who will grow up and spend decades in the sunshine at Kenan Stadium like their parents and grandparents did before them, will tell their own kids someday about that remarkable touchdown that beat N.C. State and ended a dreadful five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack, which tied the longest ever for UNC.

Chapel Hill-area natives and UNC undergrads who didn't even go to the game will fib and tell people they were there, basking in the glory of a moment etched in time as one of sheer ecstasy for anyone who loves the Tar Heels, and of unbridled pain and anger for NCSU supporters.

One can argue the game was right there in State's hands. They had a 10-point lead with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter but poor clock management and a couple of huge defensive stops by UNC, combined with a couple of late scoring drives by the Tar Heels, withered away that advantage.

Even after allowing UNC 10 unanswered points to tie it, State had nearly two minutes on the clock and all three of its timeouts to go about 40 to 50 yards and set up a field goal attempt.

But after a huge sack by Kevin Reddick on first down around the 1:40 mark, State abandoned any plan to try and march down and get into field goal range---despite Mike Glennon enjoying a career day with 467 passing yards---and elected to run the ball and play for overtime.

UNC successfully stopped State twice to force the fourth down, and used both its timeouts to create a situation where NCSU had no choice but to punt.

N.C. State people will tell you quickly that they shouldn't have punted to Bernard, who already had over 200 all-purpose yards for the second straight week and had returned a punt for a long touchdown earlier in the season against Elon.

In hindsight NCSU would have been wise to do just about anything other than kick it to Bernard, but to its credit, the Wolfpack had been excellent in punt support all season, with the longest punt return allowed all year previously being eight yards against South Alabama.

What is more, State hadn't given up a single punt return for a touchdown throughout the entire tenure of Tom O'Brien as Wolfpack coach, with the last coming back in 2005.

"I think at that point you just want to kick it and get it out of there," said O'Brien after the game. "I think we might have over-kicked it. He (NCSU's punter) hadn't hit the ball real good all day and that's probably the deepest kick he hit. What you want to do is just kick it high in the air and make him fair catch it, which we'd been doing. We had the wind behind us and the wind took it but still you have to cover and make a tackle."

Bernard went right down the sideline and got a plethora of key blocks from teammates including Damien Washington, Quinshad Davis, and Romar Morris, among others.

Those guys won't necessarily go down in history and be remembered quite the same way Bernard surely will, but they'll have stories to tell their own children and grandchildren one day about the way they sprung Bernard free to end the Wolfpack winning streak over Carolina.

"You've got to give those other 10 guys a lot of credit (on the return team) because I don't think anybody touched him (Bernard)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora.

"To my right, that's where the player was supposed to be going. I saw all blue jerseys, the dark blue. So I knew I had a wall coming back at me. I saw one of my guys. I just started yelling, 'Go! Go! Go! Go!'" Bernard said.

"I can't remember who was in front of me who was able to block the punter (Morris), and I was able to outrun the last guy. I still can't believe it. I'm still shaking right now. After that I started crying. I couldn't hold my emotions back."

Bernard's final scoring play gave him a remarkable 304 total all-purpose yards for the day (135 net rushing yards, 95 rushing yards, 74 punt return yards).

There are elements of a higher drama, a Kirk Gibson, Willis Reed or Roy Hobbs undertone to Bernard's big play, as he wasn't really supposed to even be in the game for that final punt return.

After tweaking his ankle earlier in the second half the punt return duties had been assumed by Roy Smith, but with the game and a chance to win hanging in the balance, there was no way Bernard would be denied the chance to be the hero.

"I knew he (Bernard) was going out before I called the return," said Fedora. "I saw that. It would have been Roy who would have been going out there."

"I don't think he was 100 percent the whole whatever---the last two quarters---when he rolled his ankle. I don't think he was, but he willed himself to be. He made a great play."

"At the last second, once I saw who we were returning I said, 'Man, let me get this one,'" Bernard added.

"I kind of waived somebody off. I told (Smith), 'Let me try to see what I can do on this one.' It was something that I had to dig deep in myself. My ankle was bothering me a little bit. I went down earlier in the game and I had to tough it through."

"Coach Fedora, that's the type of player he wants on his team. The guy who would take adversity right on and we were able to do that."

"He's a guy that when a play needs to be made, he wants to be out there," Fedora continued. "He wants the ball in his hands."

"I promise you he was one of those kids that was always wanting to take the last-second shot in the backyard. He's just one of those guys. He wants the ball in his hands. He wants the opportunity to make a play. Some people look at that, they get nervous, they get scared because everybody's looking at me in the situation---not him. That's when he excels."

Tar Heel fans worldwide are basking in the glow Sunday that only can come UNC beats N.C. State, but that feeling is magnified by the sense that on Saturday they saw something truly special.

Something that will be talked about as long as they're playing football games along Stadium Drive in Chapel Hill.

And whether he even realizes it or not, Giovani Bernard has now etched himself into the collective memory of the Tar Heel faithful in a way that only a select few players before him have been able to do, and in doing so has given a whole new generation of Carolina fans one of those amazing plays that will never be forgotten.





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