CHARLOTTE — With 7:40 remaining in the first quarter of Sunday’s game at Bank of America Stadium, Bengals running back Gio Bernard plunged one yard into the end zone to give Cincinnati an early lead — which didn’t stand up — over the Panthers.
It was Bernard’s first touchdown in the state of North Carolina in nearly six years. The last came on Nov. 24, 2012, at Kenan Stadium.
No, it wasn’t THAT touchdown. This score was a 1-yard run late in a win over Maryland. It was the 33rd and final touchdown of Bernard’s UNC career.
THAT touchdown — the one that you and everyone else is thinking of — occurred 28 days earlier and was number 29 for the Tar Heel running back.
With 13 seconds remaining in the annual battle with NC State, the Wolfpack prepared to punt. The game had been a back-and-forth war all day, with Carolina leading by 18 in the first half and State building a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter before the two teams ended up knotted at 35, 59 minutes and 47 seconds into the game.
Bernard, battling an ankle injury, was a late substitution on the field, trotting out to take the punt just before the snap. He took the ball and cut to the Wolfpack sideline, running 74 yards for the game-winning score.
Needless to say, the play was a major storyline for Bernard in his return to the state for Sunday’s game against the Panthers.
“It’s blown up my Twitter this entire week,” he said. “But it was cool. I saw some of the guys — one of our trainers that I went to at UNC, we talked about it as well. It’s always good for them to talk about it. I think it’s pretty sweet that it’s kind of a part of history.”
Much of the talk, particularly from the Twitter users who favor the color red, has been less than civil.
“They always talk about how, ‘Oh, that’s the only play they have (to talk about) at UNC,’” he said. “It is what it is. I made a good play and, yeah.”
Now in his sixth year in the NFL — all with the Bengals — Bernard hasn’t found the going as smooth as he did at Carolina.
He got the start on Sunday, since starting running back Joe Mixon — four years younger than Bernard — was out with an injury. It was just his 15th start in the NFL, and his first-quarter touchdown was just the 25th time he’d found the end zone as a pro, eight fewer than at Carolina in one-third the time.
Bernard has never been given the chance to be “the man” for the Bengals. As a rookie, he played behind veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Then the team took running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the 2014 draft and used a second-round pick on Mixon three years later.
“With (Mixon) here or not, the biggest thing is I always go into every single game with the attitude that you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You never know who’s going to go down in a game, and you’ve just got to be prepared. In a way, it’s like the backup quarterback role. You never know when that one play is going to happen, so you need to be ready. I prepare myself the same every single week. I just got the opportunity to play this week.”
Bernard finished with 61 yards on the ground. He’s had only four better games in the last two years. And, with his rushing touchdown, he’s already halfway to his total from each of the last three seasons.
Of course, Mixon is already hard at work on his rehab and could play again as soon as this week, which would send Bernard back down the depth chart.
“I think the biggest thing is taking advantage of opportunities,” he said. “This was just another opportunity for me to take advantage of, and you’ve just got to go out there and do that. I’ve always been the type of guy that you can’t really count the amount of plays you get. Just make the best plays you can when you do get the opportunity.”
As Wolfpack and Tar Heel fans well remember, it’s never too late, the hole never too small, for Bernard to find a way to make a play.