Normally, it’s not a good sign when a punter is among a team’s standout performers.
For the Tar Heels, however, Tommy Hibbard’s contributions were critical in a 34-27 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Hibbard’s five boots travelled a total of 216 yards, good for a 43.2 yard average. The Tar Heels also did a superb job in coverage, forcing Pitt into three fair catches while forcing the Panthers inside their own 20 yard line three times.
Hibbard also nailed a pair of 50+ yarders, including a 55-yard boot that helped thwart Pitt’s sizzling comeback attempt. By comparison, the Panthers also enjoyed stellar punting in posting a 49.2 yard average in four punts though the Panthers netted just 17.8 yards per boot.
Coach Larry Fedora certainly took notice of the unit’s superb play.
“To point out so many obvious things that stood out would have been like our special teams, our punt team, did an exceptional job throughout the game. I think their net was around 43-something. Our return unit had a couple of game-changing plays and did some nice things,” Fedora said.
The return unit is headed up by Ryan Switzer, who blew past the Panthers defense for a pair of punt return touchdowns covering 61 and 65 yards. The second one secured the Tar Heels win over Pitt, which hoped for a better result after knocking off the Irish the previous week. Switzer’s two touchdowns set a school record for most punt return touchdowns in a game, while his three scores overall set a school standard for most in one season.
As amazing as Switzer’s effort was, Fedora credited superb blocking for setting him up.
“It’s a confidence factor when you start making some of those plays. Now you’ve got guys instead of waiting around to see that who might make that play – now it’s ‘I’m going to go make that play.’ It’s a challenge amongst them: who is going to get that big block, who is going to get that big hit? They talk about it, who is going to. When they came off the sideline before I could get to [Ryan] Switzer, it was them coming by going ‘Wait until you see that one on film, wait until you see that block, wait until you see this.’ When you’ve got those guys taking a lot of pride in doing those kind of things then it just kind of snowballs and good things keep happening,” Fedora added.
Hibbard and Switzer weren’t the only strong special teams’ performers as Thomas Moore also booted a pair of key field goals.
Fedora said the Tar Heels will need all aspects of their game to be successful again Saturday vs. Old Dominion. The Monarchs are 8-3, including four straight wins, on the strength of an offense that has scored 42 or more points in three straight games.
“I would hope not. We’ve talked about that,” Fedora said of a possible letdown, particularly like the Heels suffered in a rout to East Carolina as part of a disappointing 1-5 start. “We’ve talked about the last time we probably didn’t respect an opponent we got embarrassed. I don’t think that that’s going to happen. All we have to do is turn on that film and see how many points they’re averaging – it’s got to be 40, maybe close to 50. They’re scoring points on everybody. So we’re going to have to come out and win in all three phases to be successful Saturday.”
Same goes for Old Dominion, a confident but not cocky group heading into Saturday’s tilt. ODU lost 35-24 in a matchup at Pitt on October 24, so the Monarchs are getting their battle plans ready for their march into Chapel Hill.
“We will definitely give some thought to adjusting some things we do in all three phases,” Monarchs head coach Bobby Wilder told reporters. “We have to. If we just roll out the ball and play Saturday, it’s probably not going to work.”
“They’re clearly better than we are going into this match up. We’re going to have to do everything right and then we’re going to have to get a little bit of help from the football gods.”