“I wouldn’t say that it’s a statement game, but it’s just to show everybody that I can do what I know I can do,” Bernard told reporters during his postgame interview.
Bernard’s first carry of the game came on a poorly-executed read-option play toward the right sideline, resulting in a five-yard loss. His stats through the first quarter were less than impressive – 18 yards on six carries.
Things changed drastically, however, on the opening play of the second quarter. With North Carolina facing a 4th-and-1 from its own 38-yard-line, Bernard took the handoff for an off-tackle left run play and exploded untouched for a 62-yard touchdown sprint.
“He’s standing there and I say, ‘look, you’ve got to get six inches here,’” head coach Larry Fedora said. “And he was just like, ‘I’ll get more than that.’”
Bernard credited his offensive line for containing Virginia Tech’s blitz and opening a hole for him.
“I felt like I was just running out there free,” Bernard said. “I think for the most part the offensive line did a great job of protecting on that play and it showed. I went through the line untouched. I think anybody could have run through that.”
Including that touchdown run, Bernard had a stretch of eight carries that yielded 186 yards, good for a 23.3 yards-per-carry average. All eight rushes went for eight yards or more, including a 51-yarder down the left sideline that was set up by a Bryn Renner block.
While Bernard praised his offensive front, Jonathan Cooper returned the favor, noting that the All-ACC tailback doesn’t need much of a crease to crank out a lengthy run.
“He’ll also help you do your job,” the senior left guard said. “He’ll run on your outside hip and set up a block for you and then make a great cut off you. He really makes your job a lot easier and you feel comfortable having him back there.”
Fedora offered similar comments about his shifty sophomore, who became the first Tar Heel to rush for over 200 yards since Ronnie McGill churned out 244 yards against Wake Forest in 2003.
“Gio – you give him a hole, give him a crack and he’s going to make some plays now,” 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 eight 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.”
Bernard’s 262 rushing yards ranks as the fifth-most in UNC single-game history and the most ever gained against Virginia Tech in any game. His 11.4 yards-per-carry average is the highest mark in school history, topping Kelvin Bryant’s 11.1 average set in 1981 against East Carolina.
Bernard now has four runs of 50 yards or more this season, as well as a 70-yard punt return for touchdown.