CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora, Sunday, watched the film of North Carolina’s 28-27 defeat at Wake Forest and tried to imagine how Giovani Bernard might have made a difference. Or even if Bernard could have been the difference between victory and defeat.
“I sat there watching the film wondering, well, would he have done something different here?” Fedora, the Tar Heels’ first-year coach said Monday. “Who knows?”
Bernard gained 203 all-purpose yards in UNC’s season-opening victory against Elon, but the Heels played without him last Saturday. Attempting to recover from a knee injury, Bernard watched from the sideline, dressed in uniform, while UNC fell just short of winning its ACC opener for the second consecutive season.
Against Wake Forest, the Tar Heels squandered enviable opportunities to score touchdowns twice in the second half. One drive stalled on Wake Forest’s eight-yard line, another on the Demon Deacons’ 13. UNC settled for field goals both times.
The Tar Heels’ running game performed well enough without Bernard, who set a UNC freshman record a season ago with 1,253 rushing yards. In his first collegiate start Saturday, A.J. Blue ran for 106 yards. Romar Morris, a redshirt freshman, gained 70.
“Both of those running backs did a really nice job,” Fedora said.
Even so, they’re not Bernard, whom quarterback Bryn Renner described as “one of the best players in the ACC.”
Bernard left the game against Elon before halftime and didn’t return. Two days later, he said he felt “great” and that he expected to be ready to play against Wake Forest.
A couple of hours before the scheduled 3 p.m. kickoff last Saturday – a time that officials moved back a little more than an hour because of a lightning delay – Bernard went through some warm-up drills with his teammates. He later emerged from the locker room in full uniform, but played the role of decoy.
“He wanted to play on Saturday but his knee and the training staff didn’t feel like he was ready,” Renner said. “So he was really down about that the whole week. It was a different Gio. It wasn’t the guy running around, joking and stuff like that … it was sad.”
Bernard’s absence affected UNC most in the passing game. While Blue and Morris successfully filled Bernard’s void in the rushing offense, neither did what Bernard has proven he can do in the Tar Heels’ passing game.
A season ago, Bernard caught 45 passes, third-most on the team. He figured to play an even larger role in the passing game this season as part of Fedora’s up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense.
Monday, the Tar Heels focused on the positives. They learned more about Blue, who had his most productive collegiate game, and Morris, who played for the first time against FBS competition.
“Of course you miss his presence,” UNC offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said of Bernard. “But I was very impressed and very proud of what A.J. and Romar did. They both stepped up, they ran the ball hard. I keep telling them and restating it, I was very impressed with them, and appreciative of what they did.”
The question now is when Bernard might return. This Saturday, the Tar Heels will encounter their most difficult test to date at No. 19 Louisville, which features a defense that lost just two starters from a season ago.
Fedora doesn’t reveal much about the status of injured players, but he said Bernard “moved around really well,” during the Tar Heels’ light practice Sunday.
Last week around this time, Fedora was just learning to appreciate what Bernard brought to the offense. His performance against Elon gave Fedora an indication of that. During the loss against Wake Forest, though, Fedora encountered for the first time the challenges that come when Bernard isn’t available.
“He’s very important to what we do offensively,” Fedora said. “And to this whole football team. And he’s also returning punts for us now. So that’s another integral part. So, you know, it’s hard to say how much we missed him. If he’s not on the field, it’s obvious we missed him.”