CHAPEL HILL, N.C.--- With under a minute left in North Carolina's rivalry battle with N.C. State Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill, it looked as thought UNC had fought just hard enough to give itself a chance to win in overtime following a Casey Barth field goal that tied the score 35-35.
Overtime was a promising prospect for the Tar Heels after they fell behind 10 points late in the game, but then the Wolfpack punted the ball to Giovani Bernard with around 30 seconds to play.
Bernard, who had tweaked his ankle earlier in the game, personally re-entered the game for the fateful punt return, and after breaking right and getting some blocks, Bernard raced all the way down the sideline for a stunning 74-yard punt return touchdown and a 43-35 Tar Heel triumph.
"It (the game-winning play) was just digging deep," said Bernard, who finished with a whopping 304 all-purpose yards (135 net rushing yards, 95 receiving yards, 74 punt return yards). "This entire team, this is something that we faced the entire year---adversity."
"We were down and we wanted to make something happen," Bernard continued. "Each and every single game we face some kind of adversity and Coach Fedora stressed that adversity, how we face it, calling the right plays and taking it head on. That last play is something that this entire team knew we had to do, and we were able to accomplish it."
Bernard's scoring play was the third lead change in a wild affair that included over 1,100 yards of total offense between the two teams.
"That was a lot of fun," head coach Larry Fedora said. "It was obviously a wild game, lot of things going back and forth."
Carolina drew first blood quickly and definitively, marching 85 yards on six plays in its opening drive to take an early 7-0 lead, climaxed by an 8-yard run by Bernard.
Then Erik Highsmith got into the act, as the senior wideout took an end-around for a 55-yard scoring run, followed by a brilliant two-point conversion pass from Thomas Hibbard to Jack Tabb.
But although UNC led 15-0 right out of the gate, Coach Fedora never got comfortable.
"We had talked about during the week that it didn't matter what happened in the first couple of plays of the game," Fedora said. "It didn't matter what happened in the second quarter, third quarter. It was going to come down to the last possession."
Carolina continued to pour it on in the first quarter, as Barth kicked his first field goal and UNC took advantage of a Wolfpack fumble deep in UNC territory to take a 25-7 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
But from there, the next two and a half quarters belonged to N.C. State.
The Wolfpack scored 28 unanswered points on UNC over a stretch from the final minute of the first quarter to a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Glennon to receiver Bryan Underwood late in the third quarter, which gave State a 35-25 lead heading into the final period.
Glennon was fantastic for NCSU, completing 29 of 52 passes for 467 yards and a school record-tying five touchdowns. It was truly one of the greatest individual performances a quarterback has ever enjoyed against a UNC football team.
But UNC continued to fight, knowing it would likely come down to the bitter end.
"It was going to come down to the last possession," Fedora reiterated. "We really believed that, and the kids bought into that. They bought into it and they believed that we were going to win the football game. That's the reason we won the football game because they believe that."
Things didn't look so promising for UNC after a punt midway through the final period, which gave N.C. State the ball with a 10-point lead and a chance to run out the clock.
But the Tar Heels, dominated for most of the game on defense, stepped up when the team needed them most, forcing the Wolfpack to punt three times, including the fateful final punt that Bernard scored on.
Following the first punt, UNC took the ball 74 yards in nine plays, with Renner finding Sean Tapley for a short three-yard touchdown to make the score 35-32 with 3:05 left.
Another UNC stop gave Carolina the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead, and while they pushed inside NCSU's 10-yard line, a huge sack on third down forced Barth to take the field and tie it.
NCSU attempted to run out the clock on its final offensive possession, but Carolina had two time outs and used them, forcing the Wolfpack to punt.
And they punted to Bernard---a move that is being angrily second-guessed by Wolfpack Nation.
The first two blocks on the final punt return were by Damien Washington and Quinshad Davis, which allowed Bernard to sprint down the right sideline.
Then Tre Boston took out two NCSU players around the 40-yard line, and Romar Morris threw another huge block around the 47-yard line, which freed up Bernard to take it to the house.
"My ankle was bothering me a little bit," Bernard said. "I went down earlier in the game and I had to tough it through. That's the type of player I am and that's the type of team that we are. We just had to take it on and see what we could do with it."
"That's my favorite punt return," Bernard continued. "That's the same punt return, same call that we did against Elon. Once I saw that (we were running that return), I had to get in there. I had to tell myself to get in there no matter how bad my ankle was hurting. It was something you have to dig deep and do.
With the win, UNC improves to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in ACC play, while NCSU falls to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in league play.
The Tar Heels now get a bye week before finishing up the schedule with games against Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Maryland.
"It was just a bunch of kids that played hard together and believed in each other and got it done," said Coach Fedora.