MIAMI – Giovani Bernard begged roughly 20 tickets away from his North Carolina teammates, giving them instead to friends and family who wanted to see his homecoming.
And he rewarded their benevolence.
Playing not far from where he starred as a high-schooler, Bernard ran for 177 yards and two first-half touchdowns and North Carolina survived 15 penalties to beat Miami, 18-14, on Saturday, handing the Hurricanes their first loss in Atlantic Coast Conference play this season and creating a logjam in the Coastal Division.
“It definitely has meaning to me,” said Bernard, who attended St. Thomas Aquinas in nearby Fort Lauderdale before turning down a scholarship offer from the Hurricanes and enrolling at North Carolina. “Just being able to play out there with my brothers and out there in my hometown, it’s a good feeling – but the main thing is getting the win.”
When the final whistle sounded, the entire look of the ACC Coastal race changed.
Miami (4-3, 3-1), North Carolina (5-2, 2-1), Virginia Tech (4-3, 2-1) and Duke (5-2, 2-1) all have one loss in conference play – but the Hurricanes might have lost much more than the outright division lead on Saturday. Quarterback Stephen Morris, who set a league record with 566 passing yards against N.C. State earlier this season, went down with what appeared to be a left ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter.
Morris was helped off, had an icepack strapped to the ankle, then trainers placed it in a walking boot and escorted him away from the sideline. He wasn’t with the Hurricanes for the final moments, when they came up short after getting the ball back with 1:47 remaining – turning the ball over on downs after reaching the North Carolina 26.
“I just heard him when he was on the ground,” said Miami coach Al Golden, who added that Morris would have X-rays taken. “I have no idea if he got caught up or if he landed funny. I just didn’t see it.”
Adding to the complexity of the Morris matter: Miami plays rival Florida State next week.
“I talked to him in the locker room for a little bit,” said Ryan Williams, who relieved Morris. “He seems to be doing good. I don’t exactly know what’s wrong with him. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
Morris finished 12-for-26 with 155 yards and two interceptions. Williams was 9-for-13 passing with 80 yards for Miami, which was outgained 486-415. Morris and Mike James, who had career-bests of 22 carries and 96 yards, had rushing touchdowns for Miami.
A three-play flurry by the Tar Heels late in the second quarter will likely go down as the difference in this one.
Facing a fourth-and-6 from the Miami 33, Bernard got loose to make a stumbling catch of what became a 16-yard pass from Bryn Renner – a play where the Hurricanes nearly had a sack, and one that left Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio punching the air in disappointment.
His mood turned even more sour just seconds later, when Bernard quickly went in from 17 yards out. And the Tar Heels caught Miami napping with a two-point conversion, with Tommy Hibbard taking a quick snap and throwing to Eric Ebron for a 15-7 lead on a play where Golden thought the Hurricanes had a breakdown and were left with only 10 men on the field.
“If you think about it, that’s the difference,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said of the two-point conversion.
In the fourth quarter, Miami’s final two drives ended with turnovers on downs – with the Hurricanes in field-goal range both times, but trailing by four anyway. Had North Carolina kicked the extra point after Bernard’s second touchdown, it theoretically would have been a three-point margin at the time.
Bernard went in from 10 yards out to cap the opening Tar Heels’ drive: a seven-play, 61-yard waltz with nary any resistance from Miami.
It stayed 7-0 until the midpoint of the second quarter, though easily could have been much worse. Renner was picked off by Miami’s Eddie Johnson near the goal line on one possession, and Casey Barth missed a 33-yard field goal into a swirling wind with 10:53 to play in the half. A roughing-the-kicker penalty on a Miami punt gave the Hurricanes a break, and James plowed in from a yard out on that extended possession to tie the game at 7-all with 5:21 remaining.
Morris scored from 5 yards out with 5:06 left in the third to end a 12-play, 94-yard drive and get the Hurricanes within 15-14 – a sequence where Miami apparently wanted to try going for a two-point conversion as well. But officials flagged the Hurricanes for snapping the ball too quickly, and Miami settled for just an extra point.
“It shouldn’t have been this close,” Bernard said.