UNC's Giovani Bernard romps 51-yards in the third quarter against Virginia Tech. ROBERT WILLETT
Updated 6:56 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL — It was still early in North Carolina’s 48-34 victory against Virginia Tech here on Saturday, and the Tar Heels might have felt fortunate to be tied with the Hokies at 14 at the end of the first quarter.
Three of UNC’s first four offensive drives by then had ended in punts, and the Heels had gained a modest 30 rushing yards on nine carries when they faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 38-yard line.
UNC coach Larry Fedora decided to punt. It would have been the safe and conservative thing to do. But the Tar Heels’ offensive linemen disagreed. They pleaded with Fedora to reconsider.
“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” Jonathan Cooper, UNC’s senior left guard, said later. “The entire offensive line was just yelling – ‘Just run the ball, run the ball. Let’s go for it.’ I’m pretty sure he called the punt group out, but we were like, ‘No, come on, just let us run it.’
The final seconds ran off the clock, bringing an end to the first quarter and a beginning to the second. In that time, Fedora rethought his decision.
“The longer I thought,” Fedora said, “it was more about, ‘Hey, if we’re going to win this football game, we need to be aggressive.’”
On the next play, UNC sophomore running back Giovani Bernard broke through a large hole on the left side, and raced untouched for a 62-yard touchdown. Seven seconds into the second quarter, the play gave the Tar Heels a 21-14 lead – one they never relinquished.
Bernard finished with a career-high 262 yards on 23 carries. During one eight-carry stretch that began with that 62-yard touchdown run and ended with a 51-yard run that set up a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Bernard averaged 23.3 yards per carry.
Bernard when surrounded by microphones and cameras can become bashful. So instead of acknowledging the gravity of his performance, he deflected credit to his offensive line. But Bernard did acknowledge the significance of this victory for the program that Fedora is attempting to build.
“It’s definitely a statement game,” he said. “Such a great team like V. Tech – I mean, people are probably to say they’re having an off year or whatnot but for us it doesn’t matter. We just wanted to show everybody what we can do.”
The Heels (4-2) did that, especially after their sluggish offensive start. UNC gained 533 yards of offense – 440 of them in the final three quarters. And even amid the slow start on offense, UNC remained in the game thanks to a game-changing play on special teams.
After the Hokies (3-3) took an early 7-0 lead, Sean Tapley, the sophomore receiver, returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a kickoff. Known for its special teams prowess under coach Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech hadn’t allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in 237 games – not since a 1993 game against Syracuse.
“To answer after they scored was huge,” said UNC quarterback Bryn Renner, who completed 17 of his 30 passes for 194 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Tapley. “Those special teams plays, we talk about those, coach Fedora does a great job talking about those ESPN plays – guys making a big play for us to succeed.
“And Tap – he came up with a huge punt return and also caught one. “
Tapley’s touchdown reception came midway through the third quarter, and it put the Heels ahead 35-20. Virginia Tech’s Demitri Knowles returning the ensuing kickoff for a 93-yard touchdown of his own, but UNC added 10 more points in the quarter – the final seven on A.J. Blue’s 13-yard run, which came after that 51-yard run from Bernard.
UNC’s 339 rushing yards were the Tar Heels’ most since a 2004 victory against Williams & Mary. Virginia Tech has allowed more rushing yards just twice in school history, and the Hokies had never allowed one player to run for as many yards as Bernard did on Saturday.
The success in the running game was the primary reason why the Heels overcame a season-high 15 penalties for 126 yards. UNC finished one penalty short of tying the school record.
“We gave up some plays in some situations but what our guys did, they never blinked in the face of adversity,” Fedora said. “They just kept playing. They kept going. Nobody got down when something bad happened.”
Midway through his first season at UNC, the victory against Virginia Tech was the most significant of Fedora’s young tenure here. After two other disappointing losses against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Hokies are off to their worst since 1993.
But the Heels helped them on their way, too.
“It’s still early in the year, but this was a great measuring stick for us,” Fedora said. “This is Virginia Tech. They’ve dominated the Coastal Division.”
On Saturday, though, the Tar Heels were the superior team. After a slow start, an aggressive play call on a fourth down changed the game, and perhaps the direction of UNC’s season.
--UNC basketball coach Roy Williams received a loud ovation from the home crowd when he was shown on the Kenan Stadium video board early in the first quarter. Williams, who recently underwent a biopsy that concluded a tumor on his left kidney to be benign, watched the game from a suite in the press box. Before his biopsy, Williams underwent surgery last month to remove another tumor from his right kidney. Doctors determined that tumor to be benign, too. In a message that played over the public address system, he thanked fans for their support.
--UNC had worn all white uniforms before, but Saturday represented the Heels first publicized “whiteout” – in which it encouraged fans to come to the game wearing white. An announced crowd of 54,000 watched the victory, and the great majority of Tar Heels’ fans in attendance followed the mandate and wore white. UNC also wore white helmets for the first time in the 1960s, the logos and lettering on the field – normally painted blue – were painted white.