CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Gio Bernard is good. Really good.
And the extremely gifted North Carolina tailback was at his best Saturday in helping the Tar Heels beat Virginia Tech, 48-34, at Kenan Stadium.
For UNC, it was a needed victory over a program it believes it should annually compete with but hadn’t yet beaten at home in ACC play until this outing. And for Bernard, it was a coming-out party.
He raised many eyebrows a year ago, running for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He compiled those numbers despite not owning the starting tailback job for the first several games.
But the Bernard on display Saturday against the Hokies is one of national appeal. His regional status is set: He’s the best tailback in the ACC and maybe the second-best skill position player in the league behind Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. But Bernard, who ran for 262 yards on 23 carries, is close. Really close.
“You give him a hole, give him a crack, and he’s going to make some plays now,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s going to make a lot of plays, and you look at some of those and think, ‘Wow.’ Four yards here, maybe, and all of a sudden that turns into 8 and that turns into 12 and then it’s 30 and 60, because if you don’t get on him right now, he’s got a chance to take it the distance.”
What he did to the Hokies wasn’t because the Hokies aren’t a strong defensive team. They returned 10 starters from a stout group that won the ACC’s Coastal Division and played in the Sugar Bowl a year ago and also has won 10 or more games for eight consecutive seasons.
But Bernard made mincemeat of Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-1 ACC). He made the Hokies look helpless more often than not. And quite frankly, they were.
Bernard had runs of 10 or more yards on 11 occasions, including two that went for 51 or more yards. Another carry went for 9 yards and two more went for 8 each. His 11.4 yards-per-carry average is a single-game best at UNC. Bernard also caught three passes out of the backfield.
The Tampa, Fla., native shook and juked several Hokies right out of their uniforms, leaving them on the ground or tumbling off balance reaching toward Bernard, who was distancing himself from them and their teammates in a flash.
Bernard’s biggest and longest run of the afternoon came on fourth-and-one at UNC’s 38-yard-line and the score tied 14-14 after one quarter. On the first snap of the second period, he went off left tackle, got an excellent block from tight end Jack Tabb and exploded into the secondary, racing into the end zone untouched.
It gave UNC (4-2, 1-1) a lead it would never relinquish, and also served notice that the Tar Heels could be explosive even against the nasty, gritty and physical lunch-pail-carrying Hokies.
“They just came in crashing,” Bernard said, describing the play. “They were expecting a QB sneak because earlier in the game we did a QB sneak with Bryn. They kind of jammed it up a little bit, but we knew we had someone off tackle and we took it 60-some, I don’t know how long it was, but we did a good job up front.”
A 51-yard spurt by Bernard set up a 13-yard scoring run by A.J. Blue that put UNC ahead 45-26 late in the third quarter. And in between, he darted, scooted and slipped off and away from would-be tacklers for the fifth-best rushing game in UNC’s storied tailback history.
Bernard came into the game having carried the ball just 29 times on the season, in part because UNC blew out Elon, East Carolina and Idaho and because he missed two games. The Tar Heels dropped both of those – at Wake Forest and at Louisville – basically on the last plays of the game. They could have used Bernard’s services.
So Saturday was the first truly competitive game Carolina has played in while also having Bernard on the field. The Tar Heels survived a so-so game from quarterback Bryn Renner (17-for-30, 194 yards) and on an afternoon they converted only five of 14 third-down situations.
The main reason was Bernard, an equalizer few teams in the college game possess.