The improved running game Carolina displayed in a 28-17 victory against Virginia on Saturday is due to divine intervention, senior Dwight Jones said.
UNC ran for 222 yards, led by redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard's 102 yards on just 12 carries. In just his third game, Bernard continued to show his vision and ability to stop and accelerate place him in an elite class as he averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
"He's special," Jones said. "You can't coach that. He's a gift from God. He has the ability to stop on a dime and cut back. We haven't had a back like this since I've been here.
"Gio, he's one of a kind."
Senior Ryan Houston contributed two touchdowns, and A.J. Blue gained 40 on nine carries.
Who knows whether quarterback Bryn Renner is a gift from the heavens, but he is proving to be everything predicted and more. He's completed 81.4 percent of his passes in the Tar Heels' opening three victories, and Saturday he did not throw an interception.
He did throw two more touchdowns, while completing 15 of 21 attempts for an efficient 143 yards.
"He has done such an amazing job," Bernard said of Renner. "He's really held this offense together. Even with his miscues, we never blame him for anything. It's a tough situation to come into, first year starting at the big-time level. It's not like we're a sorry team. He's done an amazing job."
The Carolina defense played well enough to hold Virginia to 17 points, but the Tar Heels were more inconsistent against the Cavaliers than they have been. Virginia ran for 170 yards, and quarterback Michael Rocco completed 22 of 37 pass attempts for 287 yards and a touchdown.
"We have a lot of work to do," linebacker Kevin Reddick said. "We have to stop the run better and defend the passes better. From the first half to the second half, we slowed them down some, but we still have a lot of work to do."
One person who has some work to do is defensive end Quinton Coples. After crowing to the media that he deserves to be the No. 1 overall draft choice next April, Coples did not really play all that well. He got handled in single blocking too often and committed an unnecessary personal foul penalty at one point, keeping a Virginia drive alive.
On the other hand, linebacker Zach Brown continues to play well. He made a team-high 12 tackles and forced a fumble.
Tre Boston is still having a tough time playing cornerback at times, given he added weight in hopes of switching to safety this year. He's playing corner out of necessity. But he showed with his tackling why the coaches think he can be such a force at safety when he can move there. He one particularly big-time tackle along the sideline.
UNC allowed its first quarterback of the season, but they also sacked Virginia's QB once and had five tackles for losses.
The biggest difference this week is the Tar Heels cleaned up a lot of their sloppy ball-handling from a week ago, when they committed five turnovers. Renner fumbled the snap once near the Virginia goal line, killing a scoring chance. But otherwise, the Tar Heels hurt the Cavaliers by making the most of their scoring opportunities with touchdowns instead of field goals.
The balance in the Tar Heels' offense this year is helping tremendously. UNC is ability to run successfully now makes them even more efficient when they do pass.
"It's a mindset," Withers said. "As a defensive coach, you're always trying to get people to kick field goals in the red zone. If you are getting touchdowns in the red zone, that takes a little bit out of your emotion as a defense."
A big part of being able to score touchdowns this year instead of settling for field goals is the improved running game and overall balance to the offense.
"The run game is about building it up and getting better with the run game," Withers said. "The early part of the game, sometimes it doesn't look so pretty. Then you hit a run, get hit on two or three and then hit another one. That is the run game sometimes.
"Some people think you always have to be getting 50 [yards], getting 20. It's not like that in the run game. Our offensive line stayed on task. Our running game on task. And we were able to run for 222."