Tudor: Bernard's performance energizes UNC program

ctudor@newsobserver.comOctober 29, 2012 

There was the afternoon in 1977 when freshman tailback Amos Lawrence ran an overwhelmed Virginia defense ragged, piling up 286 yards on 35 carries.

Four years later, Kelvin Bryant scored six touchdowns against ECU and then rushed for 247 yards against Duke in the final regular season game of that 1981 season.

Don McCauley, in 1970, buried Duke under 279 yards in his final game at Kenan Stadium.

Mike Voight, in the mid 1970s, erupted for 261 yards against Duke (1976), 228 yards against Clemson (’75) and 209 against ECU (’75).

Leon Johnson, in a 1995 bowl win over Arkansas, rushed for 195 yards and a game-turning 28-yard touchdown.

But in all the games since North Carolina became a founding member of the ACC in 1953, the performance delivered by red-shirt sophomore running back Giovani Bernard Saturday in a stunning 43-35 win over N.C. State may rate as the best ever by a Tar Heel.

Against a Wolfpack team that had rallied from a 25-7 deficit to take a 35-25 fourth-quarter lead, Bernard rushed for 135 yards, caught eight passes for 95 yards and finally returned a punt 74 yards for the last of his final touchdowns.

“That play, the way Gio turned that corner and turned it on, that’s something I’ll never forget,” said teammate Tre Boston, who had the key block.

First-year coach Larry Fedora and Bernard said they were shedding tears of joy after the score, which came with 13 seconds remaining.

Without question, the performance was the highlight of Bernard’s injury-dotted career. The game-winning punt return came after he’d been forced to sit out several plays as the result of twisted ankle.

In two of the Heels’ three losses – at Wake Forest and at Louisville – Bernard was sidelined by a knee problem. He sat out the entire 2010 schedule after undergoing knee surgery.

In three seasons, he’s had three different head coaches – Butch Davis, Everett Withers and now Fedora.

Although the win upped Carolina’s record to 6-3 (3-2 ACC), the Heels and Bernard are ineligible to play in a bowl.

After games in Chapel Hill against Georgia Tech (Nov. 10) and Maryland (Nov. 24) and one at Virginia (Nov. 15), the season will be over even if the Heels happen to wind up with the best record in the ACC Coastal Division.

That game against Maryland might double as the last college appearance for Bernard. He’ll be eligible to enter the April NFL draft and likely would be among the top running back candidates.

The top-rated running back prospect, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, suffered a possible career-ending injury in Columbia shortly before Bernard’s punt return in Chapel Hill. Lattimore’s horrific injury is a reminder how quickly a bright future can change.

But whether Bernard leaves or stays, his showing against State doubtlessly did a great deal to revitalize a depressed program once nicknamed the “Tailback U” of the East.

It was a signature moment by an extraordinary player.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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