UNC's Gio Bernard (26) looks for running room against the Virginia defense, picking up 29-yards on this carry in the third quarter at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
Updated 8:57 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina tailback Gio Bernard figures he breaks so many big runs because his 5-8 ½ height allows him to slip under, and pop around, defenders.
But if he keeps playing like this, it’s going to be harder and harder for him to hide.
Bernard on Saturday became the first UNC freshman to post a 100-yard game since 2007, helping the Tar Heels beat Virginia 28-17 and win their first ACC season opener since 2000. UNC is now 3-0 for the third time in four seasons.
“It felt good to get that under my belt,’’ Bernard said of his 12-carry, 102 yard performance. “It’s something I’ve been striving for during this entire training camp. It’s something I really wanted. Now that I’ve got that, I hope there’s more to come.”
There were plenty of notable moments during the drizzly game at Kenan Stadium: Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner (15-for-21, two touchdowns, one fumble) was sacked for the first time; defensive lineman Sylvester Williams grabbed UNC’s first fumble recovery of the year; safety Matt Merletti picked off the team’s first two interceptions of the season in the final three minutes.
But none of the stats were quite as important as Carolina’s 222 rushing yards – especially considering Virginia won the overall yardage battle 468-401.
“The yards concern you,’’ UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said, “but you can go [look] on tape and you can correct some of the things that happened to you. The points are what’s important. If they’re not scoring, they can’t win. I’m about trying to have one more than what they’ve got.”
It looked early like the Cavaliers (2-1) would gain the running advantage, too. By the beginning of the second quarter, when Robert Randolph booted a 38-yard field goal to give Virginia a 3-0 lead, the Cavs had already rushed for 62 yards – more than UNC’s vaunted defense had allowed in its first two games, combined.
Bernard got the Tar Heels’ offense rolling, though, by turning a screen pass with 14:49 left in the second quarter into a 19-yard gain. That began a quick zip down the field that culminated into an 18-yard touchdown pass from Renner to J Boyd, giving UNC a 7-0 lead.
Carolina led 14-3 at halftime, and two more big gains by Bernard in the third quarter gave the Tar Heels the cushion they needed. On UNC’s first play of the second half, he popped left for 40 yards – and three plays later, Renner found Dwight Jones for a 17-yard touchdown to make it 21-3.
Later in the quarter, Bernard rushed up the middle for 29 yards. That, combined with a deep pass from wide receiver Reggie Wilkins to fellow wide receiver Jones, set up a two-yard touchdown rush by senior Ryan Houston (nine carries, 17 yards, two touchdowns).
Renner said Bernard’s ability to find opening for big runs “really takes the pressure off all of us. He’s really explosive, and our O-line does a great job blocking for him, so I mean, any time he can break that run, that gives us a lot of confidence.”
In the end, eight different Tar Heels – including sophomore A.J. Blue, who rushed nine times for 40 yards – gained at least 14 yards on the ground.
In all, UNC out-ran the Cavs 222-170, and continued a trend in The South’s Oldest Rivalry that the team that rushes farthest usually wins. Since 1940, that’s now happened 55 out of 69 times.
Thanks, in part, to Bernard, whose only regret from Saturday is he didn’t make it all the way into the end zone.
“He’s a shifty back, and he’s got wheels,’’ said Virginia linebacker Steve Greer, whose team squandered opportunities by missing a first-quarter field goal, and turning theball over three times. “That makes him tough to defend.”