CHAPEL HILL — It was still early in North Carolinas 48-34 victory against Virginia Tech 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 UNCs first four offensive drives 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 wasnt much of a conversation, Jonathan Cooper, UNCs senior left guard, said later. The entire offensive line was just yelling Just run the ball, run the ball. Lets go for it. Im 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 were 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.
When surrounded by microphones and cameras, Bernard 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.
Its definitely a statement game, he said. Such a great team like V. Tech I mean, people are probably going to say theyre having an off year or whatnot, but for us it doesnt 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 hadnt 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 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.
Tapleys touchdown reception came midway through the third quarter, and it put the Heels ahead 35-20. Virginia Techs Demitri Knowles returned 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. Blues 13-yard run, which came after the 51-yard run from Bernard.
UNCs 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 Fedoras young tenure here. After two other disappointing losses against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Hokies are off to their worst start since 1993.
But the Heels helped them on their way, too.
Its still early in the year, but this was a great measuring stick for us, Fedora said. This is Virginia Tech. Theyve 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 UNCs season.