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September 1, 2012

Explosive beginning

North Carolina clearly overmatched Elon with manpower on Saturday in the opening football game of the season.

The difference in talent and depth does not detract from the crisp precision with which the Tar Heels played on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game as Carolina opened the [db]Larry Fedora[/db] Era by winning 62-0.

"Other than turning the ball over twice, I thought our guys responded very well," Fedora said, "from the beginning of the game and all the way through. I'm proud of them.

"But there wasn't much adversity in that game. Until we have to face some adversity, it's hard to find out who you really are. But I told the defense: 'It's hard to get a shutout against air these days.' You have to give them a lot of credit for what they were able to accomplish."

As well as the entire team played, there was a clear star from the outset.

Running back [db]Giovani Bernard exploded in the first quarter, scoring on a rushing play, catching a pass for a touchdown and returning a punt 70 yards for a TD. By halftime, Bernard had gained 93 yards to go with his three scores.

He only carried the ball nine times, averaging 10.3 yards per carry.

"It was exciting for me because that was the first time I have seen him play," Fedora said. "I've seen it in practice, but until you get to see it in a game, get to see him really light it up, see the burst that he has, that was a lot of fun."

Unfortunately, Bernard may have suffered an injury of some kind, but Fedora will not discuss injuries other than to say Bernard could have come back in the game. "But there was no need," Fedora said.

The result of the Bernard-led outburst was the Tar Heels led 41-0 at halftime.

Bernard's teammates were equally in awe of what he did.

"He was unbelievable," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "That was Heisman [Trophy] worthy."

The shutout was the first for Carolina since 1999, and the 260 yards in punt returns were an ACC record.

Renner played superbly at QB, directing the offense as if he had been running it his whole collegiate career rather than just since spring practice.

At the half, he had completed 12 of 19 throws for 183 yards and two touchdowns. His one glaring error came on an interception, but Carolina turned it back on the Phoenix with the second of two first-half interceptions of its own.

Renner played one series in the second half, ending his day with another TD pass. He finished 14-of-21 for 236 yards, three TDs and one interception.

"He can make every throw," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "He competes on every snap, every day, all day. He prepares extremely well. I still think he's still thinking a lot.

"He will continue to think for a while. It's a lot to take in a short period of time. In the live situations, we have been in, he has managed the game. He hasn't forced the ball. He gives us a chance to win. The sky is the limit with him. He has all the ability you need to be a great player."

A.J. Blue, one of three UNC running backs, finished off the scoring in the first half with a touchdown with 24 seconds remaining. Blue would later fumble near the goal line, but then compensate for that error by scoring on the next Carolina series.

If Saturday's game proves anything, it is that Butch Davis replenished the program with the kind of talent missing since the last of Mack Brown's recruits left. Fedora and his staff have won the hearts, minds and efforts of the players he inherited, too.

This team will not win this way every week, but anyone who watched this exhibition could see that the combination of the talent and the system is going to give Carolina a chance to win any of the games on the schedule.

The next opportunity will come at Wake Forest at 3 p.m. on next Saturday.

"I'm excited," defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. "We need to approach that game the same way we approached the game today. We are going to work hard Sunday through Thursday. Friday we're going to head down there, and on Saturday we are going to get up, pumped and ready to go."

The divisiveness that stamped the team at the end of the 2011 season is gone. This is clearly a group having fun playing football and doing it together.

Do not underestimate the power of having a talented team that enjoys playing the game it works so hard to prepare for each week.

"It's big for us to have fun," wide receiver Erik Highsmith said. "My senior class has been through a lot. We want to end on a good note, and Coach Fedora, he wants us to end on a good note. And he wants to have fun on the field."

To end on a good note, the Tar Heels struck the right cord to get it all started.


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