Tar Heel football fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

UNC made sure it wouldn’t go the entire season without an ACC victory, as receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams played a role in all four of the team’s touchdowns on Thursday night in a 34-31 road win over the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Ratliff-Williams sent a message right away when he returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a score.

The Tar Heels (2-8, 1-6 ACC) were not leaving Heinz Field without putting up a fight.

His 40-yard circus catch later in the first quarter then set up a short touchdown pass from first-time starting quarterback Nathan Elliott to tight end Brandon Fritts—and gave UNC an early 14-3 lead.

Pittsburgh (4-6, 2-4 ACC) rallied to take the lead back, but Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora responded by calling a wide receiver reverse pass. This play saw Ratliff-Williams—who was a quarterback in high school—find Josh Cabrera on a seam route for a 35-yard touchdown.

A pair of long field goals from Freeman Jones helped UNC stay afloat deep into the second half, but it was Ratliff-Williams who came through in the fourth quarter when the Tar Heels fell behind once again.

UNC sophomore quarterback Nathan Elliott received plenty of help from receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams in his first career start as a Tar Heel. (AP Photo/ Keith Srakokic)

His three-yard touchdown reception from Elliott with six minutes remaining completed what would turn out to be the game-winning drive.

A clutch defensive stop on Pitt’s final drive—paired with Ratliff-Williams’ heroics—helped Fedora and UNC snap a six-game losing streak and avoid what could have been the program’s first winless conference season since 1989.

“Rat’s got a lot of talent,” Fedora said after the game, referring to Ratliff-Williams. “We say that every week. All we’ve gotta do is continue to find ways to get the ball in his hands and he’s gonna make something happen.

“I’m just really proud of the way he played,” Fedora added. “We move him all over the field. We do a lot of things with him. And he’s matured as a receiver.”

The sophomore from Matthews, North Carolina accounted for 230 total yards when factoring in his passing touchdown and kickoff return totals.

Pittsburgh tailback Darrin Hall had an outstanding game of his own—rushing for 121 yards and four touchdowns—but it couldn’t quite match what Ratliff-Williams did for the Tar Heels.

Anytime UNC needed a big play, he was right there—which certainly played a role in helping Elliott stay poised in his first career start behind center.

UNC came up with a critical defensive stop late in the fourth quarter to help seal up a victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday night. (AP Photo/ Keith Srakokic)

In a huge departure from recent Tar Heel passing performances, Elliott completed 20 of his 31 attempts for 235 yards and two touchdowns—all without turning the ball over once.

“I can’t ask for any more than that,” Fedora said, of his quarterback’s performance. “He did an unbelievable job. He took care of the football. That was number one.

“We said if it was about 10:30 at night and we had no turnovers, we’d be happy,” the coach added. “And that’s what happened.”

Mixing that kind of efficient play-making with a timely fumble recovery at the 1-yard-line just before halftime–and solid efforts on both special teams and defense–provided the formula needed for UNC to reward the positive mindset it’s worked so hard to preserve in recent weeks.

“There’s something special about this group,” Fedora said. “Most groups would have turned it in by now. But these guys have kept fighting and scratching and clawing—and good things are starting to happen for them.”

Up Next:

UNC will return to Kenan Stadium next Saturday to face Western Carolina, which is 7-3 this season and is ranked No. 22 among Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools.

Game Notes:

  • The Tar Heels have won all five meetings between the two teams since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013.
  • Ratliff-Williams’ kickoff return touchdown was his second of the season, and his career.
  • He joined Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley–a Heisman Trophy front-runner–as the only players in the FBS this season with a kickoff return touchdown and a passing touchdown in the same game.





Cover Photo via Keith Srakokic (Associated Press)