The pain from his sprained right ankle was nagging at him. Twice in North Carolina’s back-and-forth affair with N.C. State, a shaken-up Giovani Bernard had to be attended to on the field by athletic trainers and coaches after the play was blown dead.
With 30 seconds left on the Kenan Stadium clock Saturday, overtime looming, coach Larry Fedora called a time out and backup returner Roy Smith prepared to field a Wolfpack punt.
- Here are some highlights from the Tar Heels’ 43-35 victory against N.C. State:
- Bryn Renner completed 30 of 47 passes for 358 yards.
- Mike Glennon completed 29 of 52 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns.
- The UNC defense sacked Mike Glennon five times for a loss of 27 yards.
- Before Bernard’s 74-yard punt return for a touchdown, both teams had a combined nine return yards on 17 punts.
Heeding Fedora’s warning that the outcome, an eventual 43-35 UNC win, would come down to the very last possession, quarterback Bryn Renner couldn’t imagine the ball being in the hands of anyone but Bernard as the final seconds ticked off.
Coaches took Bernard off the return unit earlier in the game because of his ankle, but Renner called out to his tailback anyway.
“Gio, you’ve got to get in there,” he said. “We need you.”
That’s all Bernard needed to hear. Since he arrived in Chapel Hill, he has watched his team overcome adversity. Having allowed N.C. State to score 28 unanswered points Saturday, the Tar Heels were still battling it.
If the team could do it, so could he, Bernard thought. At the last minute, Bernard waved off his teammate.
“Let me try to see what I can do on this one,” Bernard told Smith.
With all eyes on him, the blue- and red-clad crowd on its feet, Bernard fielded the punt at the 26-yard line. Looking at the Wolfpack defenders before him, Bernard thought about signaling for a fair catch. In the moment, he decided against it — “high risk, high reward,” he thought.
As he began to run toward the sideline, all he saw was a wall of navy blue jerseys, so he kept on going. At the 10-yard line, he outran the final N.C. State defender diving at his feet.
Staring at the open pathway to the end zone — and ultimately, UNC’s first win against its rival in six years — Bernard began to cry as he completed his 74-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Bernard, who was still shaking as he recounted the moment to reporters after the game, couldn’t exactly put his feelings into words. It didn’t matter. After all, he said, nothing he ever does on that field is solely for himself.
“This game will definitely go down in the record books for me, not just because of yards, not just because of the punt return, but the emotions, the highs and lows of that game,” said Bernard, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game.
“Even during the lows we were able to have high emotions, and that’s what makes a good team.”
The score tied at 35, N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon was sacked on the first play of the Wolfpack’s final drive of the day. His team’s running game hadn’t been very successful Saturday, but coach Tom O’Brien responded by calling back-to-back running plays, seemingly trying to run down the clock and force overtime.
UNC would get the ball back with 30 seconds remaining. This was just the kind of situation for which Fedora had been preparing his team all week long.
“We kept talking about that throughout the game on the sideline,” Fedora said. “As I walked by guys I said, ‘One play at a time. It’s going to come down to the last possession.’”
While O’Brien was playing for extra time, Bernard was adamant to ensure the Tar Heels wouldn’t need it.
As Bernard crossed the threshold of the end zone, right hand pointing to the sky, he didn’t slow down. Tossing the ball away, he sprinted to the student section, jumping up to greet the screaming fans reaching down to embrace him.
Once again as time expired in a UNC-N.C. State matchup, there was hardly a dry eye on the Tar Heels’ sideline.
This time the tears didn’t leave a stain of regret. Instead, they were wiped away with the very hands that clawed their way back to fulfilling a dream.
“You battle and you fight the whole 60 minutes. We knew we were going to have to,” Renner said. “For (Bernard) to come up with a big play, I was in tears. Everybody was in tears. It’s something you’ll never forget.”
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