Midway through the fourth quarter of UNC’s crucial ACC matchup with Pitt (2-2, 0-1 ACC) on Saturday, a sea of fans wearing light blue made their way to the exits at Kenan Stadium.
Little did they know, Mitch Trubisky was getting ready to orchestrate the comeback of his life.
With his team down 13 points, the quarterback put together a pair of clutch touchdown drives in the final five and a half minutes—ultimately finding Bug Howard in the end zone with two seconds left on the clock to give UNC (3-1, 1-0 ACC) a stunning 37-36 victory.
It was the type of finish that left the crowd utterly speechless as to what they had just witnessed.
The Pitt rushing attack allowed the visitors to control the flow of the game all throughout—making the Tar Heel defense appear helpless. Meanwhile, UNC’s tailback duo of Elijah Hood and TJ Logan combined for just 33 yards against an aggressive Panther defense content to blitz on nearly every down.
Although Trubisky ended up with a career-high 453 yards and five touchdowns, the UNC faithful knew their quarterback would have to take matters into his own hands—provided their defense could finally get a stop.
After Howard scored his first touchdown with just over five minutes to play, the defense did just that, stepping up when it mattered most.
Then, over the next three minutes, Trubisky conducted a 17-play death march that included three fourth down conversions—remaining calm, cool and collected the entire time according to head coach Larry Fedora.
“That’s who he is,” Fedora said of his quarterback. “When good things happen, you don’t really see him going crazy and when bad things happen you don’t really see anything. He’s pretty even keel all the way.
“You don’t know what his emotions are, which is really an ideal situation for a leader,” the coach continued. “Because everybody on the team knows exactly where he’s gonna be all the time.
“He’s just solid as a rock, and I don’t think he ever doubted they were gonna make the plays.”
Two of the all-important plays on fourth down were passes to senior receiver Ryan Switzer, who exploited the space behind the blitzes all day to finish with a school-record 16 catches for 208 yards. The third went to Austin Proehl, who was only in the game thanks to an injury to starter Mack Hollins.
When it came down to crunch time, though, with the ball on the two yard line and the clock ticking—there was only one option. The 6-foot-5 Howard sensed a mismatch with his defender, so the Tar Heels decided that if they passed the ball in that situation the only move was to lob it up to the big man.
“Before the last drive, Fedora came to me and said ‘Hey, we’re coming to you, you better make it happen,’” Howard told reporters afterwards.
“And 50-50 balls are my deal,” he added, with a smile creeping across his face. “I make those jump balls 80-20.”
Players like Switzer and defensive end Mikey Bart said they all took notice of the fans leaving early and booing the team each time it punted during the fourth quarter.
In response, the team stood strong together and refused to give up or point fingers during the moments where it seemed nothing was going their way.
Listening to Bart speak afterwards, it seemed the postgame locker room vibes were very similar to UNC’s conference opener last season in Atlanta—when the team rallied from down 21-0 to stun Georgia Tech.
“We know we’ve got each others backs, we just don’t say it [as much as we should],” Bart said. “And that’s kind of where it all started, last year against Georgia Tech. It’s just been carrying on.”
This year’s Tar Heels remain on the right path to repeat as ACC Coastal Division Champions, especially now that they hold the tiebreaker over Pitt—which finished second behind UNC in 2015.
As they watched their main goal slowly slipping away during the late stages of the game, the fight-or-flight response kicked in.
Now, the Tar Heels will head to Tallahassee next week with a much clearer picture of who they are.
“We learned a lot about our football team tonight,” Fedora said. “What we talked about before the game is we had an opportunity to establish the identity of this football team.
“And I can say there’s a lot of grit in this football team—for one—a lot of toughness, and all the intangibles that we need to be successful,” he continued. “Our guys had a great week of preparation, and that was the key.”
The tough early season gauntlet continues for UNC next week, when it travels to face No. 13 Florida State and its star tailback Dalvin Cook.
The time is now for the UNC football team, as it enters ACC play this weekend with an important home game against the Pitt Panthers—a physical group that Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora expects to try and exploit UNC’s struggling run defense from the get-go.
Earlier this week, Fedora boldly proclaimed that Pitt—which is 2-1 and coming off a shootout loss to Oklahoma State—is the best team the Tar Heels have faced all season.
Whether that’s really true depends on your feelings about No. 11 Georgia, but if there’s one thing both schools have in common it’s that they thrive when their running backs get into a rhythm.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb scampered for 222 yards against a Tar Heel run defense that finds itself ranked 106th nationally out of 128 teams.
So far in 2016, Pittsburgh has managed to grind out a whopping 239 yards per game on the ground—good enough for 21st in the country.
“It’s gonna be a long day and it’s gonna be extremely difficult,” Fedora said. “So we know we have to—I shouldn’t say stop the run, because I don’t know that anyone can stop it—but we’ve got to slow them down.
“We’d love to be around 75 percent less than what their average is,” he continued. “And if we can do that then we feel like we’ll be having some success.”
To meet Fedora’s goal, UNC’s defense will have to play at a level it’s yet to reach this season.
The main problem is that the team’s play calling on that side of the ball has been limited by a rash of injuries on the defensive line. With arguably their two best D-linemen–Dajaun Drennon and Naz Jones–questionable to play yet again this weekend, the Tar Heels may find themselves struggling to deal with the same issue.
“It limits [us] because now [we’re] putting younger guys out there that really can’t do as much as [we] would like [them] to do,” Fedora said about all the injuries up front. “So you have to look at the lowest common denominator and ask ‘What can they handle?’ And then do that.
“Because it doesn’t matter if you’ve got all these great calls,” the coach continued. “If you can’t execute them, then you’re wasting time anyway.”
Of course, most of the time UNC is on defense it will be up against a man who is as strong as they come.
James Conner has long been one of the ACC’s most fearsome tailbacks–even winning the league’s Player of the Year Award in 2014–but his battle with Hodgkins’ Lymphoma this past year turned him into one of the most inspirational figures in the sport.
Now back to full health, Conner’s journey has touched many people across America—including UNC wide receiver Ryan Switzer and quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who each played against Conner as high schoolers in the Midwest.
Earlier this week, Trubisky spoke about what it means to watch Conner return to football just as good as ever.
“It puts everything in perspective,” Trubisky said of Conner’s journey, which also includes rehabbing from a torn knee ligament suffered early last season. “We should never take for granted what we’re able to do—play the game we love.
“Really, just being able to be alive and be healthy is something to be thankful for,” he added. “I think just looking at his story, you should never complain about the situation you’re in because it could always be harder, it could always be tougher.
“But if you have the right mindset, you can overcome a lot of things like James has.”
Conner won’t be the only tailback used Saturday, however, as former NC State offensive coordinator Matt Canada—now with Pitt—has found great success with a rotation of tailbacks so far this season.
Stopping them will be the number one priority if UNC wants to remain on track to accomplish its season-long goal of repeating as ACC Coastal Division Champions.
Trubisky and the Tar Heels view this week as the first where their goals really come into play. And with its season-opening loss firmly in the rearview mirror, there’s no doubt UNC’s version of the preseason is over.
“We’re going into the ACC Coastal [this week], and we know what our goals are this year,” Trubisky said. “We need to take care of business on Saturday if we want to attain those goals, so I think there’s gonna be a lot of juice—not only this week—but for the game.”http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/shaky-unc-run-defense-faces-huge-challenge-against-pitt
Having lost five of its last seven games after starting 2016 with an 18-2 record, the No. 13 UNC baseball team needed a win to get momentum back on its side.
With an 8-1 victory at Boshamer Stadium over the tough High Point Panthers on Tuesday night, the Tar Heels hope to be headed back in the right direction.
UNC gave up leads in all three of its games against No. 3 Miami this past weekend, falling victim to its first sweep of the season.
However, the Tar Heels jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first inning on Tuesday and made sure to hold on to it this time–improving to 21-7 in 2016.
The first-inning spurt was kicked off by a one-out RBI triple from center fielder Tyler Ramirez, who finished the game 2-for-4 at the plate.
“It was definitely good to get those five in the first just to relax and kinda go out there and play,” Ramirez said after the game. “Because I think after getting swept in Miami it was difficult.”
Sophomore shortstop Logan Warmoth–hitting in the clean-up spot for the first time this year–drove Ramirez home following the first-inning triple, and was the only other Tar Heel to have multiple hits. The Florida native went 2-for-3 and also walked twice.
Seven straight hitters ended up reaching base against High Point starting pitcher Cooper Jeffers (2-1) in the first inning and control problems were a big reason why. Jeffers handed the Tar Heels their third and fourth runs of the game with a pair of bases loaded walks–which ended his day after recording just one out.
Throughout the entire game, High Point’s pitchers walked UNC 13 times. The Tar Heels pounded out just eight hits but were able to score eight runs because of this.
Not only that, the first two innings took nearly an hour to complete.
“It was one of those games where we were kinda in there laughing that this is why people don’t like baseball,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said, chuckling. “We were on pace for a four-and-a-half hour game through two innings.
“Nobody slept last night after the basketball game,” Fox added, referencing the Tar Heels’ loss to Villanova in the men’s basketball National Championship game. “So everybody was tired wanting a quick game.”
Although High Point doesn’t necessarily present the same challenges as the top-tier ACC opponents that UNC has struggled with lately, the Panthers have quietly put together the best start in school history—even after falling to 20-9 with the loss.
High Point was able to break through for a run in the fifth against UNC lefty Hunter Williams, who struggled with his control as well–walking five batters in his own right.
However, the Tar Heel bullpen continued their early-season dominance–holding the Panthers to just two hits over the final 4 1/3 innings.
These mid-week games against feisty opponents are where the Tar Heels sometimes didn’t bring the necessary effort a year ago–which ultimately cost them a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
UNC is now 7-0 against mid-week competition this year after going 12-3 a season ago–with losses to Coastal Carolina, Davidson, and UNC-Greensboro.
As important as it was to get back to winning in general, this game was also part of a season-long initiative Fox has set for his team.
“That’s been a big goal of ours is to run the table mid-week,” the coach said. “That’s gonna be a big challenge–especially at home–but I thought [High Point] was a huge challenge for us–[especially] coming off of a loss, then last night with basketball.”
The Tar Heels will have another chance to win a mid-week game on Wednesday as they host UNC-Asheville on what’s being billed as “Wing Wednesday,” with 50-cent wings on sale at Boshamer Stadium.
Sunday afternoon at Boshamer Stadium, the No. 6 UNC baseball team found that all good things must come to an end.
Entering the day with an 11-game win streak—the longest in the nation—the Tar Heels saw their bats fall flat in a 5-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers in the series finale between the teams.
A towering three-run homer in the fourth inning by Pitt designated hitter Ron Sherman off UNC starting pitcher Jason Morgan put the Tar Heels into an unfamiliar situation—as it was the first time they had trailed by that many runs all season.
Morgan—a 6-foot-6 right-hander–was pulled the next inning after allowing a pair of baserunners that eventually scored against reliever Hunter Williams.
UNC head coach Mike Fox was disappointed with the way his pitching staff was unable to put away the Pittsburgh hitters in two-strike counts.
As a team the Tar Heels struck out just five hitters, three by Morgan (1-1).
“We didn’t get a good start from Jason Morgan,” Fox said afterwards. “I don’t think he had any good command. We got to two strikes with Sherman [in the fourth inning], tried to throw a breaking ball to get a strikeout, left one up, and to his credit he hit it out.”
Despite the loss, the team is still 12-2—a respectable record by any standard.
The Tar Heels just weren’t able to string together hits when they needed them, going 1-for-14 with runners on base and 0-for-8 with men in scoring position.
Junior outfielders Tyler Ramirez and Adam Pate each had a pair of hits, but it wasn’t enough against Pitt’s Josh Falk and Garrett Wrambel (1-0)—who each threw four innings and change to complete the shutout.
“We never could get the big hit just to break open and scratch for a run or two,” Fox said. “It’s the nature of baseball. You don’t think you’re gonna go into Sunday and get shutout or shut anybody else out.”
With only three upperclassmen in his starting lineup, Fox has talked often about his team needing to face adversity and endure some tough games.
Riding a long winning streak was the result of some great performances and some days where the ball bounced in the right places.
Sunday things didn’t fall the right way, but nobody in the Tar Heel locker room was too discouraged.
“You just don’t build momentum in baseball,” Fox said. “You just don’t. Yesterday’s game is over, it all starts with that new guy on the mound and it’s 0-0.
“It just shows you how hard it is to sweep in this league,” the coach continued. “Nobody’s gonna back down.”
Sunday marked the end of an 11-game homestand for the Tar Heels, who will travel to Greenville for a matchup with East Carolina on Tuesday.
Make it 11 straight wins for the No. 6 UNC baseball team, as the Tar Heels—led by sophomore starting pitcher JB Bukauskas—shutout the Pittsburgh Panthers 4-0 at Boshamer Stadium on Saturday.
Bukauskas struck out a career-high 11 batters across seven innings while junior center fielder Tyler Ramirez went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs—bringing the Tar Heels to 12-1 in 2016, while dropping Pittsburgh to 6-6.
Ramirez’s deep blast over the right field wall in the third extended UNC’s lead to four runs and gave fans all the entertainment they would need–while his two-run single in the first gave Bukauskas (2-0) all the wiggle room he would need.
“It’s great when you score in the first inning,” Bukauskas said after the game. “It makes you feel like you’ve got a little cushion to work with when you go out there.
“Obviously our team’s been swinging the bat really well,” he continued. “It’s just a great feeling knowing [I] don’t have to be absolutely perfect and [we] can still win the game.”
Although he said he wasn’t able to watch much video of the Pittsburgh lineup before his start, Bukauskas said he received some good advice from UNC’s Friday night starter, Zac Gallen—a team captain who struck out eight hitters in eight innings the night before.
Whatever advice he received from Gallen clearly worked to his advantage.
Bukauskas may not have been perfect on Saturday, but he was definitely good enough to earn some high praise from the team’s head coach, Mike Fox.
“That might be JB’s best performance as a Tar Heel,” Fox said. “He had some good outings for us last year, but that’s about as complete a game as we’ve seen him throw. I thought just right out of the gate he was under control.
“Of course he’s got that good fastball,” the coach added. “But boy his breaking ball got him some swings and misses, and got him out of trouble some today.”
The 11-game win streak is the longest UNC has put together since it won 14 in a row back in 2013—a year they finished by barely missing out on a national championship after being hailed as the top team in America throughout the season.
Obviously this young bunch doesn’t have any surefire first-round draft picks or superstars like the 2013 team did, but it hasn’t needed them so far.
The players universally seem to speak of the locker room as one of the tightest they’ve ever been a part of. Fox has repeatedly said how much he enjoys coaching this team, but is still waiting to see how it handles adversity.
For now, though, he’ll just enjoy the wins.
“We haven’t seen a lot of distress or anything, so this team’s enjoying playing right now,” he said. “We’re getting some breaks. The ball’s falling in for us, and the other team’s hitting the ball at us.
“How much of that’s us and how much of that’s karma and part of the game—I don’t know,” Fox continued. “But right now we’ll take it.”
UNC will go for the sweep of Pittsburgh on Sunday, with first pitch scheduled for noon. That is a change to the original schedule. Rain in the forecast moved the game up from what was supposed to be a 1 p.m. start.
Since the calendar turned over to February, the No. 9 UNC men’s basketball team has seen its 13-game win streak end, lost twice, and had its head coach get sick during a sloppy win over the ACC’s worst team.
On Sunday, the team gave its fans the perfect Valentine’s Day gift—a return to form in a 85-64 blowout over the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Roy Williams came out of the tunnel at the Smith Center before tip-off and received a loud ovation from a crowd excited to see him back healthy on the sideline.
Then Williams’ team reversed its recent trends and put together a dominant effort–both on offense and defense–against the Panthers, who fall to 17-7 overall and 6-6 in the ACC after opening the year 14-1.
UNC is now 21-4 with the win, and remains alone atop the conference with a 10-2 mark in league play, despite the February struggles.
“Both road games—at Notre Dame and at Louisville—we had a chance to win,” Williams said afterwards. “At Boston College we had a chance to win, and did, but they had a chance to win too. To me, that’s more of what you see in the ACC.
“There’s no question if you score 85 and win by [this] margin, everybody’s happy,” he added.
Not everything went perfect for the Tar Heels on Sunday, especially on the backboards—as Pittsburgh won the rebounding battle 41-29, including a 19-1 edge in offensive boards.
But that can partly be attributed to the fact that UNC shot a season-high 59 percent, a far cry from the sub 40-percent numbers that hampered the team during its slump.
The Tar Heels also assisted on 26 of their 32 made shots, had five players score in double figures, and used a 13-0 run in the second half to put the game out of reach.
“The ball went in the basket,” Williams said. “It’s really pretty simple, because we’ve had some really good shots that we haven’t made.
“I told Brice [Johnson], he missed a layup, and Marcus [Paige] and Joel [Berry], they missed some wide open threes—that you’re gonna miss some shots,” he continued.
“During that [13-0] stretch, the best thing I thought we did was pass the basketball.”
Senior forward Brice Johnson led all scorers with 19 points, while Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson continued to put their problems behind them—combining for 29 points and five three-pointers.
Defensively, the team held Pittsburgh to just 37 percent shooting from the floor and forced a whopping 19 turnovers compared to the two they created in last week’s loss at Notre Dame.
Looking forward to the final six games of the regular season, Paige says this was a critical moment in this group’s development.
“We had talked about how even when we were winning—before we lost those two in a row—how we weren’t playing great basketball,” he said. “We were kinda just scraping by with wins.
“So we just really wanted to buckle down and play harder.”
Next on the schedule for the Tar Heels is the arch-rival Duke Blue Devils, who swept the season series last year on their way to a fifth national title.
Although this year’s Duke team has a lot of fresh faces, the Blue Devils are one of the nation’s most dangerous offensive teams and have beaten two ranked foes—Louisville and Virginia–in the past week.
This makes Sunday’s defensive improvements that much more important heading into the big game.
“[Pittsburgh’s] a lot different than Duke,” Paige said. “But the fact that we locked in and paid attention to detail on the scouting report is good going into a game against Duke where knowing personnel and how they like to attack is very important. And being able to transfer that to the court can be the difference in a game.
“We did a good job of that today,” he added. “And we’re gonna need to do a good job of that on Wednesday too.”
Carolina’s one offensive rebound was the fewest in any game in the Roy Williams era at UNC. The previous was four on Dec. 12, 2015 at Texas (the team’s second loss this year).
UNC had two second-chance points on Sunday (previous low this year was six in a loss at Northern Iowa–the first loss this year).
As the UNC football team was cementing its spot as number one in the ACC Coastal Division on Saturday, the top-ranked UNC men’s basketball team was doing the opposite–likely relinquishing its claim as the best team in America with a 71-67 upset loss to Northern Iowa on the road.
This game was originally scheduled by the Tar Heels to be senior point guard–and Iowa native–Marcus Paige’s “homecoming.”
But Paige could only watch as his team had a nine-point halftime lead grow to 16, before it slowly slipped away in crunch time. He has been sidelined since Nov. 3 with a broken hand.
The loss drops head coach Roy Williams and his team to 3-1 at the beginning of the year, while Northern Iowa improves to 2-1 with the stunning victory.
Up 41-32 at the break, UNC got a career game out of sophomore wing Justin Jackson–who snapped out of his early-season slump to score a personal-best 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a trio of three-pointers.
Only the frontcourt tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson were able to join Jackson in double figures, though, as the Tar Heels struggled to find scoring against the stingy Panther defense. Both players finished with exactly 10 points, despite the fact that Meeks’ scored all of the team’s first eight to begin the day.
Senior guard Wes Washpun connected on a three-quarter court heave for Northern Iowa right as the halftime buzzer sounded–giving some slight foreshadowing on what was to come. For the game, Washpun led the home team with 21 points and eight assists, while fellow senior Matt Bohannon added 19.
After a short jumper by Johnson found its way through the net with just over 17 minutes left in the second half UNC held a commanding lead, ahead 50-34.
Over the next eight minutes is when everything went down the drain, as the Panthers stormed back with a 29-8 run to put themselves in control.
Perimeter shooting proved to be the difference, with Northern Iowa making 11 shots from downtown compared to just five for the Tar Heels. UNC’s defense was also a bit shaky, as the experienced Panther guards continually beat Jackson, and guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt off the dribble.
None of Carolina’s 13 missed threes were as crucial as one by Berry with under 20 seconds remaining, and UNC down by three.
After the shot clanked off the rim, Berry ended up with the ball again at the top of the key–but misfired on a cross-court pass afterward.
The pass was intercepted by Northern Iowa and the Tar Heels were forced to intentionally foul–ending their hopes of getting Paige a win in his return home.
UNC will face a quick turnaround, as they are set to begin play in the CBE Hall-of-Fame Classic in Kansas City on Monday. The Tar Heels open up with a game against Northwestern–coached by former Duke assistant Chris Collins–before potentially facing either Missouri or Kansas State on Tuesday.
When the No. 1 UNC men’s basketball team tips off its game against the Northern Iowa Panthers tomorrow it will be a bittersweet moment for senior point guard Marcus Paige.
Although the Tar Heels are 3-0 so far with Paige sidelined due to a broken hand, this game was scheduled so that Paige could have a “homecoming” game in his native Iowa.
Instead, he’ll have to watch from the bench in a suit and tie, as his teammates look to continue their recent success without him.
In place of Paige, the Tar Heels will likely continue to start sophomore Joel Berry II at the point guard spot–while bringing in junior Nate Britt off the bench to help share the duties.
Berry played a team-high 36 minutes on Wednesday against Wofford, while no other Tar Heel crossed the 30-minute plateau. He has averaged 15 points and 4 assists during his time as a starter, but UNC head coach Roy Williams has said he would like to see him take better care of the ball. In each of the Tar Heels’ three outings, Berry has turned it over three times.
With Paige’s perimeter shooting viewed as the attribute UNC would miss the most, it’s been a welcome surprise for Williams to have Britt come in to games as the sixth man and knock down shots. To this point, the junior is 8-for-12 from beyond the arc, and has provided plenty of spacing to allow the big men to do their work down low.
Pounding the ball into the paint should be a focus for the Tar Heels in this game, since the Panthers don’t have a single upperclassman on their roster at the forward or center positions.
Northern Iowa presents a formidable challenge for the Tar Heels, but they are not exactly the same group that went 31-4, and was ranked as high as 10th in the country last season. Only two starters from that team–guards Matt Bohannon and Jeremy Morgan–are back this year for head coach Ben Jacobson; but the pair has combined to average 33 of the Panthers’ 72 points per game during the team’s 1-1 start.
Coincidentally, UNC has one of the best, most experienced frontlines in the nation–starring senior Brice Johnson and junior Kennedy Meeks. Each of those two players is averaging a double-double (Johnson: 16 PPG, 11.7 RPG, Meeks: 16.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG) to begin the year.
Should the Tar Heels execute their game plan and take advantage of the inexperienced Panther frontcourt, they could very well leave Iowa with another easy victory, and leave their leader–Paige–with a big smile on his face.http://chapelboro.com/news/top-ranked-tar-heels-head-to-northern-iowa-paige-goes-home
With the lights of Heinz Field shining bright and the ESPN TV cameras watching closely, senior quarterback Marquise Williams and the rest of the UNC football squad made a loud statement against Pitt on Thursday night.
The nation’s only one-loss team from a Power 5 conference to be left unranked this week, the Tar Heels defeated the No. 23 Pittsburgh Panthers 26-19 with another tough, grind-it-out performance.
“I’m happy we won a football game,” Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora said afterwards. “And did it on a short week. We went on the road, we played the number  team in the country, they were leading the Coastal Division, and so yeah, I’m happy we won the football game.
“There’ll be a lot of things we can get corrected, and that’s the great thing about it,” he continued. “It’s all correctable.”
UNC is now all alone atop the ACC Coastal Division, with its seventh straight victory bringing its overall record to 7-1, and making the Tar Heels a perfect 4-0 against ACC competition.
Coming into Thursday, Pittsburgh’s only loss had been to Iowa, a team ranked 10th in the nation and still undefeated. Now, the Panthers fall to 6-2 with a 4-1 record in conference play.
Williams completed 14 of his 23 pass attempts for the Tar Heels, to the tune of 270 yards and two touchdowns–while also playing turnover-free football. He also carried the ball nine times for 52 yards, leading a UNC offense that jumped out to a commanding 20-3 halftime lead behind a barrage of explosive plays.
The first of those plays involved Williams breaking free of a sack, scrambling away, and lofting a 71-yard touchdown pass to junior Ryan Switzer in the second quarter–giving the Tar Heels their first lead of the night at 10-3. Switzer finished as UNC’s top receiver in the game, catching five passes for 126 yards.
“Their safeties were playing down all game, and we knew we could, me and Mack [Hollins], get behind them,” Switzer said. “Quise did a great job keeping the play alive, and I beat my man pretty bad, and he put it in a good spot.”
Two drives later, following a 31-yard field goal by Nick Weiler that put the Tar Heels ahead by two scores, Williams found 6-foot-4 junior Mack Hollins streaking across the field for a 32-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Hollins’ only other catch of the night was on a 49-yard streak route–a third quarter play that led to the third of kicker Nick Weiler’s four field goals on the night.
Elijah Hood, the Tar Heels’ sophomore tailback, continued to assert his will on opposing defenses, grinding out a tough 98 yards on 20 touches.
Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman nearly matched Williams’ effort going 27-of-42 for 262 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also showed off his skills in the ground game, racking up 41 yards on 12 attempts rushing the ball.
Peterman’s top target, and future NFL draft pick, Tyler Boyd caught four passes on the Panthers’ opening drive on his way to 10 receptions and 89 yards.
In the second half the UNC defense held strong with a “bend but don’t break” mentality.
They were unable to stop Pitt from driving down the field, but did a tremendous job forcing punts and field goals when it mattered. The Panthers picked up a pair of touchdowns after halftime, including one with just 45 seconds left in the game, but the Tar Heels had built too big of a lead.
As they tried to mount a comeback, the Panthers continually threw in the direction of Boyd, but UNC junior cornerback Des Lawrence continually swatted them down–finishing the game with a total of four pass deflections along with seven tackles.
“I think our secondary did a heck of a job,” Fedora said. “Let me tell you, number 23 [Boyd] is a heck of a football player. We had him schemed up and he still made, I don’t know how many catches (10), but he’s a heck of a ball player and I’m proud of the way the secondary played.”
With the game largely out of reach during the second half, UNC’s offense seemed to get stuck in the mud a bit–but it didn’t seem to matter. Despite picking up just a pair of field goals after halftime, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik proved for the second straight week his bunch has what it takes to close out games.
As a result, this team is rattling off wins with no end in sight. This isn’t your older brother’s Tar Heel football team. That statement was made loud and clear Thursday night.
“[We] didn’t play our best ball, and we know that,” Switzer said. “But the most important thing is we came out of here against a ranked opponent on the road with a win. So it’s something we can build off of. There was a lot of energy in the locker room.”
Williams, the team’s unquestioned leader, said that, “We celebrate [this win] tonight and tomorrow, and that’s about it. Then we get ready to go. We gonna get ready to go against the Duke Blue Devils, and that’s a pretty good football team that’s gonna come into Kenan.”
The Tar Heels will have a couple extra days to recover as they move on from this game–the biggest of their season so far–to next week, the new biggest game of the season. Duke, currently ranked 22nd in the top 25 polls, visits Kenan Stadium to take on a UNC team that likely will make its first appearance in the polls next week.
It would be the first time in 76 years the two arch-rivals have met in football as ranked teams.
Midway through the 2015 college football season, the ACC Coastal division is still up for grabs.
Both the Tar Heels and the Panthers come into this matchup with records of 6-1 overall, however Pittsburgh sits half a game ahead of UNC and Duke in the conference standings at 4-0, instead of 3-0.
Despite losing star tailback James Conner to a knee injury early in the season the Panthers have found another standout performer to lead them to this point—6-foot-2 junior receiver Tyler Boyd, a man Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora says will present a unique challenge to UNC’s much-improved secondary.
“[Boyd’s] a tremendous player,” Fedora said after practice on Tuesday. “I mean, they put him in the backfield, they move him all over the place. He’s a guy they’re gonna get the ball to, there’s no doubt about it.”
Through seven games Boyd has already caught 53 passes for 489 yards and four touchdowns. No other player in the ACC has more than 41 receptions, and only one—Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford–has more yards.
But for senior cornerback Malik Simmons and the rest of the Tar Heels pass defense, a group ranked second nationally in yards allowed, stopping Boyd will come down to one thing.
“It’s really just lining up with him to tell you the truth,” Simmons said. “Just finding him, seeing where he is—because that’ll dictate what they wanna do. They usually wanna go to him nine times out of 10, throwing, so we just gotta find him, play into our technique and we’ll be fine.”
The Tar Heels will finally have their full stable of cornerbacks for this game, with the return of sophomore MJ Stewart, who was suspended along with freshman Mike Hughes for their roles in an incident back on October 4th. This after Simmons, who had two interceptions last week, was forced to sit out the season’s first two games for a pair of misdemeanor charges during the summer.
Despite the off-field troubles, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is pleased with the way his guys have responded on the field.
“I’m very proud of our secondary,” Chizik said. “I think they come to work every day with the intent to improve. I think it’s important to those guys to play well. They study the game, they’re very attentive, and they’re very much in tune to what we’re asking them to do.
“They’re not perfect, like none of us are–but I’m very proud with the way, collectively, they’ve been playing,” he added.
UNC has built a strong identity as an offensive team under Fedora, but it was Chizik’s defense that created five turnovers last week against Virginia to help win the game while the offense struggled to score points.
Redshirt freshman Robert Dinkins, a Tar Heel defensive end, says he’d be just fine if the same thing happened this week against head coach Pat Narduzzi and his hard-nosed Pittsburgh team.
“It feels great to be able to tell your brothers on offense that ‘Look you guys do whatever you can,’” Dinkins said. “’Even if y’all just score one field goal that’s gonna be enough for us. We just gonna make sure they don’t score as many points as y’all do.’”
The game also gives the Tar Heels another shot to prove themselves in front of a Thursday night national audience after coming up short in their first game of the year against South Carolina. On top of that, they also get a shot to prove the makers of the top 25 polls wrong for again leaving them unranked—the only one-loss team from a Power 5 conference to earn that honor.
“You can’t ignore us,” Dinkins said about what this game will show the nation. “We’re not gonna be ignored. We’re not gonna let you ignore us.
“We just gonna keep putting wins up on the board. On ESPN, you’ll see us. [If we get] the wins, eventually [the poll-makers] are gonna have to put us in there.”
The game will be broadcast live on WCHL’s airwaves, and will be televised on ESPN with kickoff set for 7 p.m.