4th and 1 on their own 38. Beginning of the second quarter. Carolina was tied 14-14 with Virginia Tech after a back-and-forth opening period. The Tar Heels seemed a bit out of sync: they'd scored two touchdowns, yes, but eight penalties had cost them 62 yards, and it appeared that a flow hadn't been established. In other words, the game's momentum was up for grabs. Then, it was put in the hands of Giovani Bernard.
4th and 1 on their own 38. What to do? The teams changed ends of the field during the TV timeout between quarters, and a lively discussion was going on on the home sideline. "Coach Fedora, I think he wanted to punt," receiver Erik Highsmith said. "But we were like, 'No, coach! We can get this. No! We're going to go get this!'"
"I really was going to punt the ball, and then the offensive line, they're cranking on me about, Let's run. Let's go for it,' and I was mad because we didn't get it on third down. Probably, if it wouldn't have been a quarter change, I would have punted the ball," Fedora said. "But the longer I thought, it was more about hey, if we're going to win this football game, we need to be aggressive."
So they were. Coming back from two TV timeouts, Carolina had two units ready to go."[Gio's] standing there, and I said, 'Look, you've got to get six inches here,'" Fedora said. "He was just like, 'Oh, I'll get more than that.'"
The offensive huddle quickly broke toward the ball, and the special teams huddle returned to the sideline. Given the distance (inches), the Hokies expected another Renner sneak attempt. Hindsight will be 20/20 for Bud Foster and the defensive staff, but the Tar Heels stacked the left side of the line. Right tackle Brennan Williams planted himself between left tackle James Hurst and tight end Eric Ebron, and Jack Tabb and Kenny Owens were just behind. This was no Renner sneak. The quarterback took the snap. The Hokies crashed in the middle, but Renner handed the ball to Bernard, who went through the hole opened up by his teammates 62 yards, untouched for the score.
Left guard Jonathan Cooper was one of those offensive linemen imploring the coach to roll the dice. "We just believe in our group, believe in our backs, and we just wanted him to go for it, and we were very adamant about it," he said. Cooper was knocked down on the play and looked up to see Hurst running downfield. "I was shocked, to be honest with you, because we called a play that was looking for maybe two or three yards max, just to get the first down."
The 62-yard run was electrifying, but remarkably it accounted for less than one-quarter of Bernard's total on the ground. The redshirt sophomore rushed 23 times for 262 yards, fifth-best in school history, and smashed the Carolina record with 11.4 yards per carry. It was the highest rushing total allowed in Virginia Tech history.
After the game, Fedora followed Bernard to the podium. "I wasn't in here, but I'll bet he gave credit to the offensive line," the coach said. "Those five guys played their rear ends off today."
Bernard had indeed given the men in the trenches the credit. "They protected me and Bryn tremendously, and it showed out there," he had said. The 62-yard score wasn't the only play that had been blocked well, but it was exemplary of an excellent day up front. "I felt like I was just running out there and free," Bernard said. "I went through the line untouched, and I think anybody could have run through that."
Larry Fedora has not been shy about his preferred style of football: Fast. Smart. Physical. If it's not mentioned in every press conference, it's implied. It's printed on every game ticket, too. When the team reviews film tomorrow and sees the play that opened the second quarter, they will check all three boxes.
The coach trusted his team that they could pick up half a yard when push came to shove.
The offense hustled to the line, wasted no time snapping the ball and got it into the hands of the Bernard who, well, he's fast.
The Tar Heels stacked the left side of the line and got big blocks not only from the linemen themselves, but from Owens, a walk-on, and Tabb, returning from injury.
Sure, it's easy to say that a single play turned the course of a game, as it resulted in a touchdown and the Tar Heels taking a lead they wouldn't relinquish. But everything that went into that play exuded Carolina football under Larry Fedora. "It was 4th and 1, and that could have gone completely the opposite way," Cooper said. "We could have not gotten the first down, or we could have punted and the could have scored, so that play was unreal. It was great that we had it, and I do feel like it swung the momentum for us."
4th and 1 at their own 38. The result was not only a 62-yard touchdown. It was a signature play early in the Larry Fedora era, and it led to a signature win.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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