Some among the sellout crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium began heading for the exits after North Carolina’s Grayson Atkins converted a 50-yard field goal to extend the Tar Heels’ lead on NC State to nine points with just 2:12 remaining on the night after Thanksgiving.
But not everyone in red and white gave up hope.
Staring up at the Jumbotron before heading back onto the field, Wolfpack receiver Emeka Emezie saw an image that foretold the improbable events that were about to unfold.
“I just (saw) in the crowd, somebody’s shirt said: ‘Don’t ever give up,’ like Jimmy V. And I started praying,” State’s all-time leading pass catcher recalled, referring to the mantra first coined by his school’s legendary former basketball coach Jim Valvano. “Then things went our way. It was crazy.”
Crazy doesn’t begin to describe what happened over those fateful final two-plus minutes.
Emezie caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Devin Leary, sandwiched around an onside kick recovery by kicker Christopher Dunn, to pull off one of the most dramatic and meaningful endings in the eventful history of the State-UNC rivalry.
The events that led to the Wolfpack’s miracle 34-30 victory were chosen by the sports staff of the North State Journal as the Comeback of the Year for 2021.
“Honestly, it doesn’t feel real,” Emezie said. “You can’t script that up. You can’t envision that. Man, that’s a blessing right here.”
UNC appeared to have put the game away after Atkins’ long field goal, which capped a run of 24 unanswered points to help erase an early 14-0 Wolfpack advantage. With a 30-21 lead, time running out and a once-festive sellout crowd having been sufficiently quieted, the Tar Heels were clearly ready to celebrate.
The party, however, turned out to be premature.
“When we knocked that field goal through, guys on the sideline got too eager, too excited, too early,” UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel admitted afterward. “And that really ended up to bite us on the butt.
“I think guys thought the game was won, thought the game was over with maybe two minutes on the clock. That’s what really caught us at the end of the game, a lack of focus because we thought we had the game won.”
That lack of focus manifested itself in a series of mistakes that opened the door for State to rally. The first came on the ensuing kickoff.
While the Tar Heels succeeded in keeping the ball away from Zonovan Knight, who had returned kicks for touchdowns in each of the previous two games, they allowed State’s other returner, Jordan Houston, to bring the ball back 37 yards to near midfield.
Then after sacking Leary for the fifth time on the first play of the drive, they let Emezie get wide open behind the defense for a quick 64-yard touchdown.
“I was surprised,” Leary said. “I went through my progression and saw Emeka was wide open, gave him a shot and let him do the rest.”
And he was just getting started. First, though, they had to get the ball back.
It was an almost identical situation to the one State faced two weeks earlier at Wake Forest. Although the Wolfpack came up with the onside kick that day, it was ruled that Ricky Person Jr. touched it before it went the required 10 yards, ending any chance for a win.
This time, Dunn waited just long enough before falling on the ball he had just kicked.
“We were due for a break there on an onside kick,” State coach Dave Doeren said, adding that the kick was “well-executed.”
Once in possession, the Wolfpack wasted little time getting into field goal range, aided by a pair of major penalties on the Tar Heels. But Doeren wasn’t interested in playing for the three-pointer, overriding offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s suggestion to run the ball and burn the clock.
“I said, ‘No, Devin’s hot, let’s go score,’” Doeren said. “I didn’t want to put it on the kicker and risk whatever could happen there. We were going to be aggressive. The way Devin plays in clutch situations, we knew something good was going to happen.”
While Emezie’s second touchdown gave State its first lead since early in the third quarter, there was still work left to be done before the Wolfpack’s second field-storming of the season could begin.
And UNC nearly spoiled the party. Led by quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels made it to the State 31 before Derrek Pitts finally settled the issue with an interception in the end zone as time expired.