Friday, November 26.
That’s a night N.C. State and UNC fans will remember exactly where they were for the rest of their lives.
Both sides of the rivalry will tell their grandkids the story years from now. There have been some epic tobacco road battles between the Wolfpack and Tar Heels. The 2021 version was no different. Depending on which side you ask, it was either the best game in recent memory or the worst ever.
N.C. State had much more on the line than UNC. It was senior night, the Pack was trying to secure another nine-win season under Dave Doeren and, at the time, there was an outside shot for a trip to the ACC title game. The Heels, preseason darlings, and now just one game above bowl eligibility, arrived in Raleigh to play spoiler. It almost worked.
Sam Howell, the UNC junior quarterback, did everything in his power to bring the Heels back from a 14-0 hole in the opening quarter. Howell’s legs, more so than his arm, put UNC ahead in the third and the Tar Heels only got stronger. UNC kicker Grayson Atkins was turning into the hero for the Tar Heels. He kicked two field goals in the fourth quarter, including one from 50 that put UNC ahead by 10. When that final kick went through the uprights, Carolina led 30-21 with 2:12 remaining. What happened in that final 2:12 was unthinkable. After what seemed like a lifetime of everything that can go wrong, going wrong for State fans, for once, Wolfpack nation got some balls to bounce their way.
Over the final 2:12 N.C. State needed a lot of things to go their way. On a wild and crazy night at Carter-Finley, things actually did.
Here is a first-person account of how it all went down.
Roddy Jones was on the call in the broadcast booth for ESPN. When Atkins’ kick put UNC up by nine, Jones and broadcast partner Matt Barrie were ready to share a narrative of a big win for the Heels — searching for the proper sendoff for UNC’s highly-touted quarterback.
JONES: “The other thing we’re trying to do on the broadcast is sort of paint the picture for Carolina; first win on the road, beating your rival, Sam Howell, potentially his last game. So we’re kind of thinking of those two parallels; it’s super improbable for N.C. State, there’s still a small path, we could be talking about ‘hey, with a Hail Mary, N.C. State could win this.’ In my mind was how do we send Sam Howell off the right way if this is indeed his last game in a Carolina uniform.”
On the other side of the stadium, in section 14, first row of the upper deck, N.C. State super fan Steve Young sat and watched with his group of friends. Each home game, about 17 people in Young’s party sit in the same spot. Young, who has been going to games at Carter-Finley Stadium since he was a student, noticed people, including those in his group, starting to head for the exits.
YOUNG: “I understood it, we were down nine. It was such a frustrating game. The first quarter we dominated and then it just got progressively worse and the Carolina fans got progressively worse. Not just cheering, but they were crap talking. There were fights, confrontations, nose-to-nose. Our play was getting worse, their play was getting better, it was just a frustrating time everywhere. So when they hit that (field goal) I think a lot of it was ‘I’m going to get out of here before I do something stupid’ and ‘I just don’t want to have to listen to the Carolina fans who are here at the end of the game.’”
Not every Carolina fan was ready to celebrate. In the UNC section, also in the upper deck, sat Lymarie Jackson, a former Carolina cheerleader from Roanoke Rapids. Jackson’s daughter, Cailyn, is currently on the UNC cheerleading team. With her view partially blocked by a tuba, and wrapped in a comforter to protect from the cold, Jackson took the wait-and-see approach instead of relaxing.
JACKSON: “I am an optimist by nature until it comes to sports. Even in those two minutes, Atkins kicked the field goal and that was good, but even in that moment I’m not celebrating until the fat lady sings. There were people around me that were (cheering) and I was like ‘no, I’ve been hurt before.’ I just know that things come back to bite me if I run my mouth, so I try to keep my mouth shut until it’s a done deal. I don’t worry about things going wrong. Worry is a wasted emotion, so it’s not something I generally do. I always think it’s going to be OK, except for when it comes to sports.”
Carson Arthur, also from Roanoke Rapids, is a former student manager for the Carolina football team. When UNC went up nine, he saw State fans heading for the exits. Like Jackson, he wasn’t ready to celebrate.
ARTHUR: “I was like ‘man, why are they leaving this thing still isn’t over.’”
JONES: “I thought that N.C. State would be able to score and I thought that we’d be kicking an onside kick with some amount of time, but certainly less than a minute. In my mind I’m thinking, ‘ok, best case scenario, N.C. State’s kicking an onside kick with 20 or 30 seconds left, trying to recover it and then maybe with a recovery we get a Hail Mary in the endzone.’ That in my mind is the best scenario.”
THE FIRST EMEZIE TOUCHDOWN
UNC was given a sideline warning after the Atkins field goal. Several players ran on the field to celebrate the big kick. After things settled down, the Tar Heels kicked off to Jordan Houston, who returned the ball 37 yards to the 44, taking five seconds off the clock.
On first and 10, N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary was sacked by Ray Vohasek for a loss of eight. For a brief moment, Jackson allowed herself to feel some relief.
JACKSON: “I was thinking ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh we are going to win this.’”
The Wolfpack was facing a second-and-18 and the clock was running. Leary caught the snap from Grant Gibson out of the shotgun and looked to his left to his top target. Emeka Emezie, the all-time receptions leader in school history, had caught three passes up to that point. He was running all by himself up the UNC sideline. Sixty-four yards later, he was in the endzone for a score.
JONES: “The big pass to Emezie, that was really the one that made my jaw drop. He was so wide open. If we would have had a camera in the booth, literally, my jaw dropped when that happened because you can’t turn a guy, especially the best receiver on the other team, certainly not in that scenario.”
ARTHUR: “I see Emezie streaking free down the sideline and Leary releases, my heart dropped like ‘how are we losing sight of him?’”
EMEZIE: “They (UNC) clouded the coverage. The safety (Cam’Ron Kelly) had taken Thayer (Thomas), so I started running down the sideline. I was just hoping Devin would see me and he just launched it up and I was wide open.”
LEARY: “Based off the coverage, based off the matchup, we were just taking a shot.”
Adina Stock, a former gymnast at N.C. State, has served as the assistant AD for team operations for 12 years. On game days her duties range from working with the parking staff to campus police to the highway patrol.
When Emezie was crossing the goal line after his 64-yard score, Stock was in the parking lot on a golf cart. She had just driven some elderly fans to their car. In the cup holder of her cart, Stock had her trusty walkie talkie handy. Tyler Cox, who is the director of game operations, was back at command, giving Stock a play-by-play of what was happening inside the stadium. When Emezie’s score made it a two-point game, Stock knew giving fans rides to their cars was over.
STOCK: “I’m listening and I go ‘oh, I need to be back at the stadium now.’ I finish my last drive to the cars and I drive back to the stadium on the golf cart. I run in the stadium, all the way down the stairs and I make it back on the field with 1:30 remaining.”
THE ONSIDE KICK
Down two with 1:35 left on the clock, N.C. State needed to recover an onside kick to have any shot at winning the game. Luckily, the Pack had success in that department this season. N.C. State recovered an onside kick at Mississippi State in week two. It appeared N.C. State recovered one against Wake Forest on Nov. 13. Technically, it did come up with the ball. But it was ruled that Ricky Person, Jr. touched it before the ball traveled 10 yards. As kicker Christopher Dunn lined up, he thought back to the success they’d had on special teams.
DUNN: “Technically, throughout the year we’re three for three on recoveries. But unfortunately, due to that penalty at Wake, we’re two for three.”
YOUNG: “I was thinking ‘it’s Wake Forest again.’ Like, we can’t recover two in a row, and I know it got overturned, but we touched that ball between 9.8 yards and 10.2 yards.”
Dunn said there’s about a 20 percent chance of recovering an onside kick. It either goes bad or it works. Against the Bulldogs, the Wolfpack kicked to the left of the formation. It went to the right against the Demon Deacons. Ready to kick it off against UNC, Dunn got the signal from special teams coach Todd Goebbel to kick it up the middle.
DUNN: “It was pretty much a three-on-two battle. With the speed of me already approaching the ball going downfield up the middle, I already had momentum carrying me to the 10-yard mark.”
Dunn kicked a perfect dribbler up the middle of the field. He followed the ball the entire way. As the ball got close to the Tar Heels, UNC defensive back Trey Morrison went airborne for some reason — launching himself toward Dunn.
DUNN: “For whatever reason, he tried to take my head off. So I end up going low, and I’m able to slide kind of underneath him. It worked out because the ball pretty much tapped one guy and dribbled under and I was pretty much able to sit there at 11 yards, pick the ball up and lay on top of it until the referees blew the whistle.”
JONES: “Once he recovers it, again, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. (It’s) unbelievable because you have two Carolina guys that have a shot before the ball goes 10 yards. They both short circuit or decide not to go for it. They both run past the football one way or another, then Chris Dunn falls on it. I think at that moment when Chris Dunn came up with the football I was pretty sure State was going to score.”
LEARY: “Just think, we were in the same situation a couple of weeks ago and things didn’t go our way. As soon as we recovered the kick I knew we were going to score — get the ball in the endzone, somehow, some way.”
YOUNG: “Right now his legacy (Dunn) is recovering the onside kick versus Carolina.”
DUNN: “I’m glad it’s a positive memory that people are remembering me by for sure.”
Emezie had two touchdown receptions in the fourth quarter. At some point in the game he looked up at the video board and caught a glimpse of a red shirt. On the front of that shirt was the famous phrase ‘Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up.’ That phrase is known throughout the country, but it hits close to home for Wolfpack fans. Former N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano said it during his famous speech at the ESPY’s in 1993.
In a post-game interview, Emezie told the media he looked up at the video board at some point in the fourth quarter, saw the shirt and kept believing.
Wearing that shirt was Terry Grayson, who was sitting in section 23, near the tunnel toward the UNC locker room.
GRAYSON: “I used to volunteer with the Jimmy V organization when they used to have the golf classic here and they used to sell those shirts and I loved it. Having gone to school when Jimmy V was there, I met him several times. I got to meet him more times than most people got to.”
Grayson noticed fans leaving when State was down 10. But like his shirt said, he wasn’t giving up. At some point during the fourth, an ESPN cameraman spotted Grayson in the crowd and pointed at his shirt. Moments later, Grayson looked up and saw himself on the big screen. After the first Emezie score, the cameraman looked for Grayson again.
GRAYSON: “I just did the whole Superman thing with it and got up in there between people and he put me on the Jumbotron.”
After the game, Grayson got several texts from friends, who heard about Emezie mentioning the shirt during his interview.
GRAYSON: “I feel honored, I feel flabbergasted. I mean, let’s be honest, how many football players are looking up at the screen during the game? Most of them are watching the game unfold. The fact that somebody inspired him with Jimmy V’s words, it’s just incredible.”
Grayson said he doesn’t have plans to retire or frame the shirt, one of 40 N.C. State tops he owns.
GRAYSON: “A lot of people said I need to get Emeka to sign it. It’s just one of those things, if it does bring inspiration to him at the time, think about how many other people saw me that day walking around. It may not get worn as much, but it’s always been one of my favorite shirts. I know what it did so that’s good enough for me.”
THE NEXT DRIVE
After Dunn’s recovery he raced to the sideline to calm down and warm up, in case he needed to kick a field goal. It seemed pretty realistic that N.C. State was going to score points, either a field goal or a touchdown. The way momentum was flowing and how the ball bounced their way, State fans finally felt like something good was going to go their way.
GRAYSON: “It has been a long time since N.C. State fans have had a chance to believe in something. Some N.C. State fans are waiting for the other shoe to drop. That day I was just like, everything that needs to go right, is going right. There’s no way we’re losing this game.”
JONES: ”It was a foregone conclusion that State was going to score points. The question was how much time was Carolina going to have and how many points they were going to be down.”
YOUNG: “We had to score a touchdown, plain and simple.”
JACKSON: “When they recovered the onside kick I figured State would at least kick a field goal. The dagger through the heart was when they scored a touchdown.”
The drive got off to a bad start for the Wolfpack. Emezie was called for a false start on the first play, then Leary’s pass attempt to Emezie was incomplete. The next play, UNC was called for a false start, followed by a roughing the passer flag against Vohasek. Two plays later, Leary looked for Devin Carter and Storm Duck was called for pass interference. With a first-and-10 from the 24, Jones thought the Pack should run the ball and kill some time.
JONES: “I will forever be etched in the history of N.C. State for saying you have to run the ball to score the game-winning touchdown. I thought running the ball was the right decision in that scenario because it did two things. One, it kind of lets the game settle a little bit, it lets you take control of the clock. I thought, running the football you have the clock running and then you’re in field goal range with Chris Dunn.”
Instead of running it, Leary went for it all. He dropped back and once again looked for Emezie. The senior wideout was heading to the endzone and Leary let it fly. While the ball was in the air, Kelly, tied atop the ACC with four interceptions, was tracking the ball. Kelly and Emezie arrived at the corner of the endzone at the same time and jumped.
YOUNG: “That’s right in front of me. And I’m like, ‘it’s intercepted.’ The Carolina guy had the beat on it, he had the position and I’m thinking to myself that Emeka needs to somehow knock it down and then he caught it and we just went crazy.”
JONES: “The fact of the matter is that pass should have been intercepted and if that pass is picked, you lose the game because you throw the ball down the field in that scenario.”
Emezie out-jumped Kelly and came down with the ball for the touchdown. Around Carter-Finley Stadium, chaos ensued.
YOUNG: “It was like a mosh pit. And it wasn’t as crazy as it could have been because it had thinned out. You’re just jumping around and hugging people and high-fiving people. It was just mayhem.”
GRAYSON: “Dude, I just went nuts like everybody else. I’m going nuts, everyone is going nuts.”
JONES: “It’s like an eruption out of nowhere. It was electric, man, it was an electric explosion and I’m not sure I’ve seen a lot of them like that, either. This was 0-100 in an instant.”
While the crowd was erupting, Stock and her staff were watching the stands. The pulse of the stadium had shifted in a matter of moments and they were prepared for a possible field rush for the second time this season.
STOCK: “I’m talking to my boss and I’m thinking ‘these kids could rush.’ So, when we do a field rush, my responsibility is the officials — to make sure they get off the field and my boss takes care of the visiting team. I pretty much ran the concourse and ran the stairs to get down to the field to watch the fans’ emotions, trying to think if they rush or if they were not going to rush. You start to see campus police and you start to see more event staff move into position, you’ll start to see the police will form a circle around the goalpost.”
Before there could be a rush, the game had to end. After a failed two-point conversion, there was still 1:09 remaining on the clock. That seemed like an eternity for both sides.
YOUNG: “I just kept saying ‘at least they’ve got to score a touchdown.’ That was a huge relief. Every play you’re focused in and watching the scoreboard. I wasn’t thinking we were going to lose, but I wasn’t thinking we were going to win. It was purely one play (at a time). The total doubt wasn’t there.”
JACKSON: “I still had hope because it’s Sam Howell.”
Howell definitely did his part. He completed three passes for 41 yards, and ran the ball once for a gain of five. UNC was quickly at the N.C. State 30 after a defensive holding call against Derrek Pitts. The Tar Heels had time for one last play, a Hail Mary shot to the endzone.
YOUNG: “That pass was on the total opposite (end) of me. It seemed like it was in slow motion, but it was so loud and then when he dropped back to throw it, it just got eerily quiet. Everybody was just waiting. I’ve learned to look at the fans closest to the play, look at their reaction. When it got quiet and that ball went over there, I could see the fans over there just erupt.”
At the corner of the endzone, a scrum of players, including Wolfpack receivers Devin Carter and Trent Pennix, jumped for the ball. Pitts, who was just called for holding moments earlier, came away with an interception. State would win 34-30.
JACKSON: “It was like ‘how did that just happen?’ It sucked, I hated it. But I don’t know if we knew exactly what we had just watched.”
For the second time this season, fans rushed the field to celebrate.
DUNN: “Everyone’s congratulating me, wanting to get pictures, asking for autographs. I was just trying to enjoy the moment, soak it up. It was senior night. There are so many great things already going on. And just being with the guys on the team and celebrating that win over our rivals and those guys in blue down the road, it was an awesome feeling. It was amazing. And I’m just glad that our fans and all the seniors were able to soak up that moment and enjoy the win.”
YOUNG: “It was a huge celebration. It’s just one big celebration when you’re leaving, everybody’s so happy. Then I got to the tailgate and I probably had three or four hugs, lots of high fives.”
JONES: “This one, there’s two sides to it. It’s great by State. But it’s a monumental collapse by Carolina. It will go down in the history books. I’ve never seen anything like this, especially in a rivalry game.”