UNC's Giovani Bernard trots into the end zone to score a touchdown on a three-yard run to give the Tar Heels a 6-0 lead in the third quarter. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated 5:38 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL - At first, North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner said, he just missed open receivers against a Louisville defense that put tremendous pressure on him.
But after being held to two first downs and 62 yards in a dreadful first half, Renner and the Tar Heels’ offense bounced back after halftime Saturday in a 14-7 win at Kenan Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard ran for 79 of his 109 yards after halftime, becoming the first North Carolina player with four straight 100-yard rushing performances since Ethan Horton had five in a row in 1984.
North Carolina’s defense prevented Louisville from scoring until 42 seconds remained in the fourth quarter, narrowly missing its first shutout since 1999. And Renner directed two second-half touchdown drives against a defense that led the nation in tackles for loss with nine per game entering this week.
“At halftime, I think we grew up a little bit,” interim coach Everett Withers said after the Tar Heels improved to 5-1.
Louisville outgained North Carolina 188 yards to 62 in the first half but could not score. Chris Philpott missed wide left on field goal attempts of 40 and 36 yards, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was intercepted by North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown at the Tar Heels’ 17.
Philpott’s miss from 36 yards came six seconds before halftime. North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples said coaches often motivate the team at halftime by telling players to act as if the score is 0-0.
“When it’s actually 0-0, it’s a weird feeling,” Coples said.
The Cardinals’ aggressive defense rattled Renner in the first half. He wound up being sacked four times in the game – three times by Marcus Smith – as Louisville recorded eight tackles for loss.
But North Carolina’s coaches adjusted their pass protections at halftime. After going 2-for-6 in the first half, Renner looked more like the quarterback who completed 75.7 percent of his passes in the first five games.
Renner went 10-for-12 in the second half as the Tar Heels completely reversed the flow of the game. After halftime, North Carolina outgained Louisville 202 yards to 85.
“We knew they were going to come in and bring a lot of pressure,” Renner said. “I think we handled that well. It’s just sometimes in the first half I didn’t get rid of the ball.”
On North Carolina’s second drive of the second half, Renner hit Erik Highsmith for a 22-yard gain and passed 12 yards to Dwight Jones on third-and-5. A Louisville offsides penalty on a fourth-down field goal attempt gave the Tar Heels first-and-goal at the 3, and Bernard immediately ran in for the opening score with 7:11 left in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels made Louisville pay for one of its blitzes in the fourth quarter as Renner hit Jones on a 43-yard scoring pass. Jones caught the ball at the 13 and escaped the grasp of would-be tacklers Terell Floyd and Shenard Holton at the 5.
Louisville (2-3) scored on an 18-yard pass from Bridgewater to Dominique Brown with 42 seconds left. But Highsmith fielded the Cardinals’ onside kick attempt, and Bernard ran out the clock.
An offense with a sophomore starting quarterback and redshirt freshman starting at running back found its rhythm in time for the Tar Heels to win their eighth straight nonconference game dating back to last season.
With only ACC games remaining, beginning with Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. home meeting with Miami, that gave North Carolina something to build on.
“I think it shows a lot about our offense,” Bernard said. “When things aren’t going right, we can come back.”