CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The North Carolina Tar Heels had the target on their jerseys which the Pittsburgh Panthers focused their sights on when the two Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coastal Division foes met at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.
It was the two teams’ ACC-opening game of the season, and with 54,500 looking on, it was played to the finest-cut edge of the scoring margin and into the final seconds of play when place kick Nick Weiler capped off a thrilling 37-36 comeback win for the Tar Heels.
“A heckuva football game,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said.
“We knew it was going to take 60 minutes to beat those guys, and we used every second of it to get it done.”
“I would say it’s a big game because they are the defending Coastal champions – they’re the team to beat,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said earlier in the week.
“It will be a great challenge to go down there and face the Coastal Division champion from a year ago. That’s our goal and that’s where we want to be. When the first ACC team you play is the one who is the defending champion in that division, it is a great challenge.”
Pitt met the challenge head on and came to battle on the ground with rushing touchdowns from quarterback Nathan Peterman (14-18, 140 yards/6 carries, 19 yards), and backs James Conner (16 carries, 66 yards), Chawntez Moss (7 carries, 47 yards), and George Aston (3 carries, 18 yards).
The Tar Heels countered by taking to the air as quarterback Mitch Trubisky had a record-setting day as he completed 35 of 46 passes for 453 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Bug Howard (6 catches, 66 yards) pulled in two scoring receptions, including the winner, while Ryan Switzer (16 catches, 208 yards), Austin Proehl (7 catches, 99 yards), and Mack Hollins (1 catch, 39 yards) made one touchdown catch apiece.
In total, both teams posted a combined 73 points, 804 total yards, and 149 tackles – a true battle that would require everything each team had to earn the win.
Though Pitt possessed the ball for 41 minutes, the Tar Heels defense led by a career performance from cornerback M.J. Stewart who made 13 tackles, including 10 solo hits, held the Panthers offense in check during the final quarter.
Following Chris Blewitt’s 40-yard kick that eventually extended the Pitt lead to 36-23 with 10:56 to play, UNC contained Peterman, Conner and the rest of the Panthers offense during their final two possessions, and eventually outscored them 14-3 as Trubisky went to work and utilized the multitude of talented offensive personnel the Tar Heels possess to earn the win.
Highlights: ACC Digital Network (TheACC.com)
The North Carolina quarterback set career highs in for completions, pass attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes, and tied the school record for scoring passes in a game.
In addition, Trubisky set the school record with 30 consecutive pass completions, a mark he set over the last two games – completing his last 18 in a row last week against JMU before adding 12 straight completions in the first half against Pitt.
He also set the school record for most passing yards in back-to-back games with 885 yards – 432 he posted against JMU to go along with the 453 he recorded against Pitt.
“He was calm,” Howard said.
“As receivers, we all have a connection with Mitch. Mitch is calm. I don’t think I’ve seen him in panic mode. All these games have gone by, and now you’re seein’ the real Mitch.”
In the opening quarter, after the Panthers couldn’t progress past the North Carolina 46-yard line, a punt return from Switzer was returned for a touchdown.
However, his run from his own 11-yard line was called back due to a holding penalty on the play.
On the ensuing possession, a shovel pass from Trubisky to Switzer didn’t advance the play past the goal line, and resulted in a safety that put Pitt ahead 2-0 at the 10:30 mark.
Threatening to score from the red zone on the ensuing possession, a wild snap over Peterman’s head resulted in a 28-yard loss.
That didn’t slow Pitt down though.
Following a 10-yard gain from Quadree Henderson (9 carries, 107 yards), the Panthers’ leading rusher on the day, Blewitt successfully converted a 50-yard field goal attempt.
He split the uprights and extended the visitors’ lead to 5-0 with 2:16 to play in the period.
Conner’s one-yard rush into the end zone soon gave Pitt a 12-point advantage that capped off a seven-play, 41-yard drive to start the next period.
UNC responded with a swing pass right from Trubisky to Switzer who advanced the ball 58 yards to the Pitt 33.
“I got some matchups that I thought I could take advantage of,” Switzer said.
“Whether it was a safety or a nickel-corner, I was just lookin’ to make some plays for my guys.”
Trubisky eventually connected with Hollins and put the Tar Heels’ first points on the board following Nick Weiler’s PAT.
Hollins then made an impressive snag at the one-yard line in double coverage and entered the end zone to score, propelled by his own forward momentum as well as that of both Pitt defenders draped all over him.
Not deterred, Peterman marched Pitt down the field on the next possession and handed it off to Aston who reestablished the margin to 12 points with 6:38 to play in the half.
A pass to a wide-open Switzer countered that sequence and got the Tar Heels offense moving again.
Trubisky orchestrated a 10-play, 74-yard drive that put the ball into the left end zone to the versatile receiver who assumed his cross-armed statuesque stance while his teammates jumped in celebration around him.
“Ryan Switzer’s a player, I don’t know what to tell ya,” Fedora said.
“He’s a player. In the game plan this week, he knew he was going to have an opportunity to have a big game. Because they’re so dominating in run-stopping defensively, it was basically going to have him one-on-one with a safety the majority of the game. And so, we felt like we could take advantage of that. And he did. He made some great plays and some clutch plays for us tonight.”
Pitt led 19-13.
A fumble by Henderson forced by Stewart put the Tar Heels in position to pull closer before halftime.
Following a pass interference call on Pitt’s Avonte Mattox (4 tackles, 0.5 sack) on a pass play intended for Hollins, Weiler successfully converted a field goal attempt from 34 yards.
The Panthers carried a 19-16 lead into the halftime break.
It didn’t take long for Pitt to extend its lead early in the third quarter.
Following a three-and-out for the Tar Heels, Peterman’s handoff to Moss resulted in a two-yard score that made it a 10-point game, 26-16.
Once again, a Trubisky-to-Switzer pass-and-run, a 45-yard gain, put UNC in position to score.
From there, after a few downs, the Tar Heels quarterback rolled right and found Proehl wide open in the deep right-center of the end zone.
The touchdown cut the Pitt score back down to three points at the 8:32 mark.
To cap off an 11-play, 82-yard drive, Peterman managed to poke the ball past the plane of the goal line and with Blewitt’s PAT gave the Panthers a 33-23 lead six minutes later.
On the ensuing possession, a 41-yard reception from Proehl put UNC on the Pitt 21-yard line.
Pitt’s defense, led by Jordan Whitehead’s 12 tackles on the day, forced the Tar Heels to bring Weiler in to attempt a 35-yard field goal.
The attempt was unsuccessful and allowed the Panthers to carry their 10-point advantage into the final quarter.
It looked as though Pitt was in control and would likely hold on to its lead, and beat North Carolina for the first time since 2009.
But, that didn’t happen.
The Tar Heels scored a critical touchdown as Trubisky delivered a lofted two-yard pass to Howard that narrowed the deficit to 36-30 with 5:24 remaining.
An emphatic defensive stand kept the Panthers hemmed inside their own 30-yard line and forced a punt just under two minutes later.
With UNC entering the Pitt half of the field, a big sack on Trubisky by Saleem Brightwell (5 tackles) slowed UNC’s progress and could have ended the comeback right there and then.
However, three straight passes to Switzer – five, seven, and nine yards respectively – put the Tar Heels on the Pitt 17.
A pass to Howard then advanced the ball to the four-yard line with first-and-goal to go with 31 seconds remaining.
Howard was then the recipient of Trubisky’s fifth touchdown throw of the game.
He leapt in the air and made the catch with one hand before falling to the ground in full possession of the ball.
In doing so, he tied his career high with six receptions.
“The 50-50 balls are my deal,” Howard said smiling.
“I make the jump ball, 80-20.”
Weiler’s PAT sealed the Tar Heels’ dramatic final-seconds victory, and completed a 17-play, 63-yard drive and possession – their longest of the day.
“I guess the thing I am most proud about this football team is that there was never a point in the game, where whatever was happening, anybody got down, no matter what the situation was,” Fedora concluded.
“Really proud of the way this team played. And my hat’s off to Pat and that football team. They’re a heckuva football team. They’re gonna win a lot of games, and we are very fortunate to get this one, but very proud of our football team.”