CHAPEL HILL - NC State went from thinking about playing in overtime to watching its five-game winning streak snapped by North Carolina on Saturday.
North Carolina sophomore punt returner Giovani Bernard found an alley down the right side and his blockers did the rest for a clean 74-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left to give the Tar Heels a come from behind 43-35 victory at Kenan Stadium.
The punt return was part of a big game by Bernard, who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, and caught eight passes for 95 yards. Bernard saved his best for the fourth quarter with 182 of his 304 all-purpose yards.
The loss spoiled a dominant effort from NC State fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Glennon went passed for 467 yards and five touchdown in rallying the Wolfpack from an early 25-7 deficit.
"I thought we were going to overtime until that last play," Glennon said. "They did a good job on that punt return and you have to give them credit. I thought we really executed our offense well, and guys were getting open and I was just throwing it to them."
The Wolfpack fell to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the ACC, and will try to become bowl eligible with a home game against Virginia next Saturday. UNC improved to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the league.
"There are not a lot of words to explain how bad this hurts," NC State fifth-year senior safety Earl Wolff said. "We gave up too many opportunities and didn't take advantage enough, and it cost us a loss."
NC State controlled its own destiny in the Atlantic Division of the ACC going into the game, but will now need help with four games remaining.
"It's going to be difficult," NC State coach Tom O'Brien said. "This is a really important game to our school, and important game to our football team. I asked them in the locker room afterwards if they were finished and they said, 'No.' We got the month of November to play and I think they are angry."
NC State has almost become accustomed to last minute drama this season.
• The 10-7 win over UConn Sept. 8 came down to a key fourth down and four stop with 1:43 left in the game.
• Miami won 44-37 on a 62-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Phillip Dorsett with 19 seconds left in the game Sept. 29.
• Glennon tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore Bryan Underwood with 16 seconds left to upset then No. 3-ranked Florida State 17-16 on Oct. 6.
• Maryland freshman kicker Brad Craddock missed a 33-yard field goal with two seconds left to help NC State hold on to a 20-18 victory Oct. 20.
Watching Bernard go untouched for a punt return touchdown is the latest difficult task for the NC State players to overcome.
"It's crazy because we were thinking about overtime and were getting mentally prepared for it," Wolff said. "After he ran it back, I was speechless."
Bernard wasn't originally supposed to be out there on the punt return, but he told Roy Smith to switch places. He said he saw all blue jerseys on his punt return.
"I knew I had a wall coming back at me," Bernard said. "I saw one of my guys, I just started yelling 'Go, go, go, go.' I can't remember who was in front of me, who was able to block the punter, 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."
NC State scored 28 unanswered points to take a 35-25 lead, with the last score of the streak a 55-yard touchdown pass to Underwood with eight seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The Wolfpack couldn't muster any scoring opportunities from that point on.
UNC junior quarterback Bryn Renner started the comeback with a three-yard touchdown pass to Sean Tapley to cut the lead to 35-32 with 10:23 left. Renner finished going 30-of-47 passing for 358 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
NC State had three more drives to try and put a dagger in UNC, but never got past its own 44-yard line. The Wolfpack appeared to be playing for overtime on the last drive, which began with 1:24 left in the game. North Carolina senior linebacker Kevin Reddick got his second sack of the game for a loss of seven yards, and then the Wolfpack ran for a pair of plays with the Tar Heels calling timeouts after each one.
"We wanted to get a little bit of field position and get the ball out a little bit, and then we wanted to continue to attack," said O'Brien about the Wolfpack's last drive. "We didn't want to think that we could just on a three-point lead. We had been successful throwing the ball the whole time."
NC State sophomore punter Wil Baumann boomed a 49-yard punt, and Bernard did the rest. O'Brien said Baumann might have punted it too good. He averaged 41.1 yards on nine punts, with six of the punts not returned.
The first quarter completely belonged to UNC. The rode some trick plays and the emotion of the rivalry to surge to a 25-7 lead.
Renner lined up at receiver and took a reverse, and hit senior wide receiver Erik Highsmith for a 41-yard pass to the NCSU 30-yard line. Bernard eventually went in for a eight-yard touchdown run with 13:19 left in the first quarter.
Highsmith was involved on the next trick play by going 45 yards on a reverse for a touchdown, and then holder Tommy Hibbard completed a two-point conversion pass to tight end Jack Tabb to take a 15-0 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
"We practiced against all the trick stuff," O'Brien said. "It wasn't anything we didn't expect."
NC State stopped the bleeding with Glennon fining freshman wide receiver Charlie Hegedus on a 32-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 15-7. Hegedus scored his first score of his college career.
UNC senior kicker Casey Barth drilled a 45-yard field goal with 3:42 remaining in the first quarter to extend the lead to 18-7. Bernard then scored the second of his three touchdowns with a one-yard plunge to make the lead 25-7 with 1:24 left in the quarter. Bernard's score was set up on a controversial fumble call involving NC State fifth-year senior tight end Mario Carter at the Wolfpack 25.
NC State then started to find its offensive stride and passing potential toward the end of the first quarter, but Glennon needed to have his receivers to hold on to the football. The Wolfpack had at least seven drops, with one of them leading to an interception.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Rashard Smith came through with a 30-yard touchdown catch to give the Wolfpack a touchdown with 26 seconds left in the first quarter, cutting the lead to 25-14.
The Wolfpack tacked on two big passing touchdowns in the second quarter, and one more in the third. Glennon connected twice with Underwood, with the first a 20-yard touchdown pass with 11:35 left in the second quarter to help NCSU pull within 25-21. His second was the previously mentioned 55-yard score in the third quarter.
Glennon rolled right for his third touchdown pass and unloaded a howitzer for an 83-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Tobais Palmer to give the Wolfpack their first lead, 28-25 with 6:49 left in the second quarter.
Underwood finished with six catches for 118 yards and two scores, giving him a touchdown in all eight games, and 10 on the season. Palmer finished with five receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown.
Senior fifth-year cornerback C.J. Wilson also came through with a pair of turnovers - an interception in the end zone after he caught his deflection in the second quarter, and he stripped UNC freshman wide receiver Quinshad Davis at the NC State 14-yard line in the third. Wilson nearly had a pick-six opportunity, but couldn't hang on to it.
The various opportunities throughout the contest gave the players plenty of "What if?" moments.
"I can't remember our guys dropping so many passes with balls right in our hands," O'Brien said. "I don't have any reason why. To give up a punt return at the end is a tough way too lose."