Unlike any other coach in the NC State-North Carolina football series, Dick Sheridan owned the rivalry.
Sure, Tom O’Brien won five of his six matchups against the Tar Heels, just one less than Sheridan. O’Brien led the Wolfpack to some of the more iconic wins in the series, such as the 41-10 rout in Kenan Stadium in 2008, led by freshman quarterback Russell Wilson, and the 13-0 win in in 2011 that is the only shutout by either team since 1970.
Underdog Earle Edwards, whose team played 13 of his 17 games in Chapel Hill because Riddick Stadium was too small to host the rivalry, beat the Tar Heels nine times; he also lost eight times. Both are the most for any Wolfpack coach in the rivalry during the Atlantic Coast Conference era.
There was just something about Sheridan’s seven-year tenure that refined and defined the rivalry more than any other, because he took largely underdog teams and beat the Tar Heels in six of the seven meetings he coached in the Wolfpack’s oldest rivalry.
His legacy is also cemented by the fact that his two immediate predecessors (Monte Kiffin and Tom Reed) and his successor (Mike O’Cain) were winless in 13 games against the Tar Heels.
Of course, Sheridan received two gimmes in head coach Mack Brown’s first two seasons of his first tenure in Chapel Hill, 48-3 in 1988 and 40-6 in 1989. Those games rank No. 1 and 2 on the list of NC State’s biggest margins of victory in the series that officially dates back to 1894. The former game is the biggest win by either team heading into Friday night’s 112th meeting.
As Brown supposedly built an in-state, regional and national recruiting advantage after those difficult years, Sheridan continued to win the biggest game on most Wolfpack fans’ schedule by using the underrated players that he and his staff targeted, developed and used to qualify for a school-record seven consecutive postseason appearances (1988-92 under Sheridan and 1993-94 under O’Cain, after Sheridan retired for health reasons).
The even-keeled Sheridan, recently inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame, admits that even he got a little extra-pumped when his team faced the Tar Heels.
“The way the fans reacted, the players, because we weren’t favored, of course,” Sheridan said. “North Carolina always out-recruited us. They always out-recruited everybody. They were always ranked first in the ACC [at that time], and we were down at the bottom.”
Recruiting rankings, of course, are only important between National Signing Day and the first game of the fall, and Sheridan proved it against the Tar Heels six out of seven times.
O’Cain, who never beat North Carolina in his seven tries as head coach, while Brown and his recruiting classes climbed into the nation’s Top 10, wished he knew Sheridan’s secret, if there was such a thing.
“Coach Sheridan just had a knack for motivation,” said the retired O’Cain. “I really don’t know what it was. He was never a rah-rah guy. He just got his players to do things. I don’t think it’s anything you can bottle. If it was, I would have done so and used it myself.”
A brief recap of every State-UNC game during the Sheridan era.
NC State 35, North Carolina 34 (Oct. 18, 1986): Sheridan’s inaugural game against North Carolina couldn’t have been more important. The Wolfpack had not played in the postseason since a 1978 victory over Pittsburgh in the Tangerine Bowl and was still smarting over three consecutive 3-8 seasons under Reed. Overall, the Wolfpack (3-1-1) had lost seven straight to Tar Heels coach Dick Crum — its last win led by All-America running back Ted Brown.
There was little reason to believe the Pack, led by All-ACC quarterback Erik Kramer and a handful of talented receivers, had a chance of going on the road and beating the Tar Heels and (as always) highly touted quarterback Mark Maye.
But 1986 was a remarkable season of unlikely wins, last-minute comebacks and excitement that hadn’t been part of the program since the departure of Bo Rein.
With barely a minute to play, Kramer capped off an incredible 98-yard touchdown drive in hostile Kenan Stadium, throwing a 37-yard pass to Nasrallah Worthen for the 35-28 lead. Maye and the Tar Heels answered quickly, needing only 53 seconds to get to the other end of the field to score a touchdown.
Crum decided to go for two against a Wolfpack defense that had given up 59 points the week before at Georgia Tech, and Maye found tight end Dave Truitt on the left flat.
Scrambling away from a Wolfpack rush, Maye threw a low pass that Truitt caught, but his knee touched the turf before he could get to the end zone.
The win ended a nearly decade-long losing streak and began Sheridan’s mastery in the series.
Sheridan, recently in Raleigh to be honored for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, claimed this was his most memorable win at NC State.
North Carolina 17, NC State 14 (Oct. 17, 1987): Sheridan’s only loss to the Tar Heels came during his only losing season at NC State, a 4-7 campaign that was dramatically affected by the Pack’s loss of two-time All-ACC quarterback Kramer, wide receiver Haywood Jeffires and kicker Mike Cofer to graduation and the unexpected suspension of Worthen for a campus altercation.
Sheridan’s team was trying to win its third consecutive home game after beating Maryland and Georgia Tech.
The Heels benefitted from two special teams plays that turned the game. The first was a snap that went over the head of Wolfpack punter Craig Salmon and was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
Late in the game, with UNC holding a three-point lead, Sheridan called for a fake punt on fourth and 11. The play failed, and the Tar Heels ran out the clock for one of its five wins in Crum’s last season.
NC State 48, North Carolina 3 (Oct. 15, 1988): The NC State coaching staff surprised Carolina’s overmatched defense by inserting junior quarterback Shane Montgomery in the starting lineup and beginning the game with a no-huddle offense.
Montgomery built a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter, then scored on two touchdowns and a 54-yard Damon Hartman field goal in the final five minutes of the first half, thanks to a pair of interceptions by linebacker Fred Stone.
The Wolfpack defense entered the game ranked as one of the nation’s best in terms of yards and points allowed. It did not give up a touchdown and held the Tar Heels to just 178 yards of total offense.
The 27-3 halftime margin only grew in the second half with a Montgomery pass to Worthen and two rushing touchdowns that gave the Wolfpack the biggest margin of victory by either team in the history of the rivalry.
“We put it away early in the second half and just kept stomping on them,” Montgomery said in remembering the game. “It’s a day you will always remember, even though it was 30 years ago. It is definitely one of the great memories I have of playing at NC State.”
The Wolfpack didn’t let up in the second half, with Montgomery throwing another touchdown pass to Worthen. A pair of interceptions, one by Michael Brooks and one by Dexter Royal, led to the game’s final two touchdowns.
By the end of the day, there was little blue in the stadium and lots of blues in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels suffered their ninth consecutive loss and a school-worst six straight defeats to start the season. More importantly, it was the first of a school-record five consecutive wins by Sheridan’s Wolfpack, all against Mack Brown, who was just starting the first of his two tenures in Chapel Hill.
NC State 40, North Carolina 6 (Sept. 23, 1989): The day after Hurricane Hugo rolled over the state, the Wolfpack rolled over the Tar Heels in Carter-Finley Stadium for its second blowout victory in the series, bringing a little joy and light to at least half of the state, much of which was still without power.
Hugo had hit near Charleston, South Carolina, Thursday night and followed Interstates 26 and 85 through Charlotte and the western part of the state Friday morning.
Saturday was bright and sunny in Raleigh, and the Wolfpack took little time in dispatching Brown’s second edition, beginning with a 73-yard opening drive for a touchdown and taking a 26-0 first half lead.
Montgomery led a State offense that amassed 478 yards in the game, while the defense held North Carolina to just 119 yards. Wide receiver Chris Corders caught two scoring passes in the game.
The win, State’s first over North Carolina in Carter-Finley since 1975, gave Sheridan’s team a 4-0 record in the ACC en route to a 6-0 start and an eventual trip to the Copper Bowl.
NC State 12, North Carolina 9 (Sept. 29, 1990): With the scored tied 9-9 and time running out in a defensive struggle that featured 17 punts, three interceptions, a combined 423 yards in total offense and nothing but field goals, Wolfpack senior placekicker Damon Hartman trotted out on the field at Kenan Stadium to attempt the longest field goal of his career.
Two years earlier, he had made a 54-yarder on the same field, but that one was a relatively meaningless kick at the end of the first half of a blowout victory.
This one — his fifth attempt of the day — was to decide the furiously defensive showdown game. Hartman easily made his first three attempts of 45, 40 and 44 yards to give the Wolfpack a 9-6 lead. With four minutes remaining in the game, however, he missed a 44-yard attempt, opening the door for the Tar Heels to potentially win the game.
With a minute remaining, after a fast drive down the field by UNC quarterback Todd Burnett to the Wolfpack 5-yard line, the State defense stopped the Tar Heels on three consecutive plays. UNC’s Clint Gwaltney ended up kicking a 21-yard field goal to knot the score, leading the crowd at Kenan to believe it forced a tie in the pre-overtime era of college football.
Getting the ball on the 20 with 66 seconds on the clock, the Wolfpack offense was immediately aided by a pass interference penalty, then quarterback Charles Davenport completed four consecutive passes to get his team to the 38-yard line. With a second to play, Hartman ran on to the field for a 56-yarder.
The low-liner kick went between two out-stretched Tar Heel defenders and kept rising until it sailed exactly between the uprights in Kenan’s east end zone, giving Sheridan his third straight win in the series and fourth in five attempts.
NC State 24, North Carolina 7 (Sept. 28, 1991): For the first time since Brown’s arrival in 1988, the Tar Heels were finally favored to win against the Wolfpack, entering the game at Carter-Finley Stadium ranked No. 23 in the country.
Their chances dramatically improved on the second play of the second quarter, when Wolfpack junior quarterback Terry Jordan was sacked and suffered a broken arm that ended his season after just four starts.
Freshman Geoff Bender came off the bench, however, and threw two touchdown passes to give the Wolfpack a 17-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Tar Heels scored once at the end of the third, but the Wolfpack defense was strong all day. With four seconds remaining, junior cornerback Sebastian Savage picked off his second pass of the game, racing 99 yards down the sideline for a touchdown and the Wolfpack had four consecutive wins for the first time in series history.
NC State 27, North Carolina 20 (Sept. 26, 1992): This game at Kenan Stadium was definitely supposed to be the game Brown turned around the rivalry against Sheridan. He fielded the best team of his tenure to that point, and while the Wolfpack was ranked No. 23 in the nation, the Tar Heels believed they were on the rise.
On this day, however, Jordan became a series hero, completing a remarkable 23 of his 25 passes in the game for 361 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass, but his amazing accuracy moved the Wolfpack down the field at Kenan Stadium all day long.
Had the offense not lost three fumbles, the margin of victory would have been bigger. Instead, UNC quarterback Jason Stanicek combined with running back Natrone Means to keep their team in the game. They partnered in the option offense to tie the game at 20-20 with five minutes to play.
Jordan took over at that point, converting two key third-down plays and utilizing receiver Eddie Goines to march down the field. With a minute to play, fullback Greg Manior plunged two yards for the game-winning touchdown, giving Sheridan and the Wolfpack a series-record fifth straight win over the Tar Heels, a streak that was later matched under O’Brien.
The Wolfpack’s senior class became the first to ever post an undefeated record against their biggest rival.
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