College football: UNC 49, Wake 24
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s players kept snatching the ball away from Wake Forest and converting mistakes into touchdowns. When they were done, the Tar Heels had put an ugly loss behind them and turned in an offensive performance not seen around here in years.
Redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard scored three touchdowns and had his sixth 100-yard rushing performance to help North Carolina beat Wake Forest 49-24 on Saturday, making the Tar Heels bowl eligible for the fourth straight season.
Bernard ran for a pair of touchdowns and had a 7-yard scoring catch in the first quarter, while North Carolina (6-3, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) took advantage of an uncharacteristic line of mistakes from the normally sure-handed Demon Deacons (5-3, 4-2). Wake Forest had five turnovers — three on interceptions thrown by Tanner Price — after committing just five all season, and the Tar Heels converted four into touchdowns.
It all led to a huge day for the UNC offense, which had a season-high 562 total yards a week after a 59-38 loss at Clemson. It was North Carolina’s best scoring output in seven years and its most points in an ACC game in a decade.
“I think our kids really focused in this week on playing as good as they can play,” interim coach Everett Withers said. “We talked about commitment to each other on this football team. I thought the guys committed to each other today.”
Bernard ran for 154 yards on 27 carries, while his short TD catch in the opening quarter was his first career scoring reception. He reached the 100-yard mark on a 4-yard carry early in the fourth, then broke off a 54-yard run late to finish 1 yard shy of matching his season-high. He also moved within 35 yards of becoming the first Tar Heel to run for 1,000 yards in a season since Jonathan Linton did it in Mack Brown’s final season in 1997.
“It was a major part of what we needed,” Bernard said. “Coming off last week’s loss, everybody else was hungry. … I think it showed in how focused we were.”
Bryn Renner completed 21 of 28 passes for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns, while top receiver Dwight Jones had six catches for 138 yards. Fellow wideout Erik Highsmith added his first two-TD performance, scoring on a 4-yard catch in the opening quarter and on a diving 38-yard grab early in the fourth that blew the game open.
UNC forced turnovers on Wake Forest’s first two possessions and jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Tar Heels led 21-17 late in the third before turning it into a rout, getting a short touchdown run from Ryan Houston and Bernard’s second 4-yard scoring run to push the lead to 35-17 less than a minute into the fourth. Highsmith’s catch followed, then reserve A.J. Blue ran for another score to cap a run of 28 straight points.
“I was amazed we played as poorly as we had and were still in the game,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “We kept turning it over and never really helped ourselves. Five turnovers? You can’t beat anyone doing that.”
The 49 points were the most by the Tar Heels since scoring 49 against William & Mary to open the 2004 season. It was also the most points for UNC in an ACC game since scoring 52 against Duke in 2001.
The game came a day after the school appeared before the NCAA infractions committee in Indianapolis following the probe into improper benefits and academic misconduct, a scandal that led to the firing of head coach Butch Davis just before preseason camp. Now Withers has the Tar Heels right where they were before Davis’ ouster, heading into November focused on improving their bowl standing.
“We need to try to win the rest of these games so we can go to a better bowl,” said linebacker Zach Brown, who stripped Price on a sack and recovered the fumble on Wake Forest’s first possession. “It feels really good, but really six wins is not enough.”
As for Wake Forest, Price threw for 146 yards before being pulled early in the fourth quarter. Chris Givens, ranked fourth nationally with 127 yards receiving per game, finished with six catches for 42 yards.
Brandon Pendergrass ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries to lead Wake Forest.
“It’s so tough to put your finger on what caused it,” Price said. “It’s too bad it happened. It can’t happen again.”
The Associated Press