NC State coach Tom O'Brien talked last week about how dangerous North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard has been in the return game this season.
So it came as a shock to see O'Brien decide to kick to Bernard with 30 seconds left in their game last week, with the game tied. The idea was to kick the punt high into the air and force Bernard into a fair catch.
That did not happen.
Instead, Bernard returned the punt 74 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 43-35 victory, a signature play that will go down in the history books between these longtime rivals. North Carolina broke its five-game losing streak to NC State, and Bernard ended up with a career-high 304 all-purpose yards in the game.
His performance got him recognition on the Paul Hornung Award honor roll, which recognizes the top all-purpose players in the nation each week. He was also the ACC Specialist of the Week and selected a semifinalist Monday for the Maxwell Award, given every year to the top player in college football.
Bernard has been making incredible plays all season but none bigger than Saturday. He finished the day with 230 yards from scrimmage -- 135 yards rushing and a career-high 95 yards receiving to lead the team in both categories on the day. He scored three total touchdowns.
His fourth quarter was ridiculous. Bernard had 89 yards rushing, a 19-yard reception and a 74-yard punt return in the fourth quarter for a total of 182 all-purpose yards in the final 15 minutes. Amazingly, Bernard was not supposed to return the final punt because he had sustained an ankle injury earlier in the game.
But Bernard asked to go in, waving teammate Roy Smith off.
"I told my backup punt returner, ‘Let me try to see what I can do on this one,’" Bernard said after the game. "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. That’s the type of player that 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.”
Bernard has 1,498 all-purpose yards this year, already the ninth most in school history.