RALEIGH — There’s no need to explain to N.C. State the value of North Carolina running back Gio Bernard.
The Wolfpack defense knows the best way to beat the Tar Heels is to hold Bernard in check. That’s what happened last year when the two teams met in Raleigh, a 13-0 N.C. State win.
But Bernard, a third-year sophomore, has been even better in coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense than he was a year ago when he became UNC’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997.
Bernard leads the ACC, and ranks fifth in the country, in rushing with 132.5 yards per game. His numbers have been even better in conference play.
For proof of Bernard’s value, look at UNC’s record. With Bernard in the lineup, the Heels are 5-1 this season. When he missed two games with an apparent knee injury, UNC lost road games to Wake Forest and Louisville in September.
"He’s putting up some pretty good numbers," N.C. State safety Earl Wolff said. "He’s a great player, I would say probably the best running back in the ACC."
Bernard has been so productive for UNC, he’s scoring touchdowns when the ball is completed to other players. Against Duke on Saturday, Bernard scooped up an Erik Highsmith fumble, after the receiver gained 36 yards, and returned it four yards for a touchdown with 3:12 left in the fourth quarter.
Bernard has used more conventional methods to pile up big numbers. He has rushed for 795 yards on 102 carries, an average of 7.7 yards per carry, in six games. He has seven rushing touchdowns, plus the Highsmith fumble recovery, which goes in the books as a rushing touchdown.
He has also caught 24 passes for 224 yards with three touchdowns and a punt return for a touchdown.
In three ACC games, Bernard’s numbers have been even better. He has 582 rushing yards in the three games, or 192 per game, with four touchdowns. He has added 12 catches for 112 yards with a touchdown.
"Gio is such a great running back," N.C. State running back Tony Creecy said. "He has speed, he has vision, he’s a strong running back."
Then Creecy threw in a qualifier.
"But with our defense, I think they can control him," Creecy said of the N.C. State defense. "We’re not going to stop him but we’re going to put him under control."
That’s what N.C. State’s defense, led by linebackers Terrell Manning and Audie Cole, did in last year’s win over the Heels.
Bernard ran for 47 yards, on 18 carries, and had two catches for 26 yards against the Wolfpack. Two of Bernard’s rushes covered 24 yards – including a 13-yarder on UNC’s first offensive play of the game – but another 16 attempts went for just 23 yards. State’s defense also sacked Bernard on a halfback pass attempt.
Manning made 11 tackles in the game, five on Bernard, but Manning and Cole, the Wolfpack’s top linebackers from a year ago, are both in the NFL.
Stopping the run has been a problem for the Wolfpack recently. Maryland’s Wes Brown ran for 121 yards last Saturday and Florida State’s Chris Thompson ran for 141 yards on Oct. 6.
Given the changes in scheme at UNC, and in personnel on N.C. State’s defense, it is hard to draw conclusions from last year’s game, Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien said.
O’Brien praised Bernard but also said he has had help.
"This is the best offensive line we are going to play against this year," O’Brien said.
The Wolfpack has had success against UNC’s blockers, but again, that was against the Heels’ old, pro-style based scheme.
N.C. State had four sacks against quarterback Bryn Renner last year and seven against T.J. Yates in 2010. The Wolfpack knocked Renner out of last year’s game with an apparent concussion, and broke one of Yates’ ribs in the 2010 game in Chapel Hill.
"We’re going to have trouble sacking him," O’Brien said. "He has only been sacked five times this year."