PITTSBURGH — After he watched Ryan Switzer return two punts for touchdowns, including one that gave North Carolina a 34-27 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora thought about the days when he was recruiting Switzer out of the West Virginia hills.
And you remember watching his film, Fedora said, and thinking, Is this real? (Because of) some of the things he was doing.
On Saturday at Heinz Field, Switzer provided another is-this-real moment in part because of what he did on that game-winning 61-yard punt return with about five minutes to play, and in part because of the circumstances that surrounded it.
The Tar Heels (5-5, 4-3) led 27-3 early in the third quarter, but then saw that lead disappear in a span of five stunning minutes early in the fourth quarter. Pitt (5-5, 2-4), though, made the final critical mistake of the game. It punted to Switzer, and then allowed him plenty of room to move.
When did Switzer realize he might have a chance on that final return?
Right when I caught it, he said. There wasnt a lot of pressure on me. It was a good spiral kick. Wasnt too high. And as soon as I caught it, I hit the sideline. And thankfully Ive got good peripheral vision I was able to see a cutback lane and hit it.
And then that was it. After finding the lane, Switzer followed it across the field and ran free, nearly untouched.
In the moments before the return UNC sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams had been standing on the sideline, preparing to go in. He said later he had a feeling that maybe his services wouldnt be needed.
Before the thing kicked off I was like, I think Ryans about to take another one back, said Williams, who passed for 173 yards, rushed for 79 and ran for two touchdowns in UNCs dominant first half. Because when the balls in his hands, you already know something is going to happen.
Hes one of those guys that you always count on to make a play.
Switzer, whose 65-yard punt return gave the Tar Heels a 24-3 lead with about one minute remaining in the first half, tied UNCs single-game record with two punt returns for touchdowns. He has now returned three punts for touchdowns this season, which is the school record.
Hes a special player, said Fedora, whose team won its fourth consecutive game after a 1-5 start. And I think Ryan would probably tell you this, too hes got 10 guys out there with him that are making it happen. They are selling out and blocking their butt off because they know. Theyve got that spark. They know that he can take it the distance at any time.
Switzer arrived at UNC as one of the most decorated members of the Tar Heels freshmen class. Yet it has taken him a while to gain confidence and to discover his niche. He apparently has found it.
Given his size and speed, punt returner isnt an unlikely home for Switzer, who at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds appears faster because of his diminutiveness. Surrounded by reporters on Saturday, he spoke of those far-away preseason practices, back in early August, when he was down on the depth chart.
Coming into training camp, I think I was second or third on the punt return depth chart, Switzer said. I was like, Man. Ultimately it was just making sure you caught every ball in practice and then the scrimmage. And I caught coach Fedoras eye and I just told him I want to do this. And thankfully he trusted me.
The fourth quarter on Saturday, though, tested Fedoras faith, and that of his team. Pitt cut UNCs lead to 27-17 with about 13 and a half minutes to play, and then, after Pitts Chris Blewitt made a 42-yard field goal with about 10 minutes to play, UNC led 27-20.
The Tar Heels freshman running back T.J. Logan fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Panthers recovered. Moments later, they scored again off a James Connor 2-yard run and the comeback was complete 17 points in about five minutes, and the game was tied at 27.
After another UNC punt, the Tar Heels forced a three-and-out, and Switzer took his position. Fedora, who directly oversees the punt return team, called a play during which the Tar Heels double-teamed Pitts gunners the two players who attempt to race down the field and stop the returner. The punt was long and low.
I saw the punter outkick his coverage, said Kareem Martin, the UNC defensive end who had 3.5 sacks. And whenever you do that, thats always bad news for the punt team.
It was this time, at least. After Fedora walked out of the postgame interview room, he and Switzer shared an embrace. Fedora told Switzer he was proud. There were times, not all that long ago, when Fedora watched Switzers high school highlights in awe. And now here was Switzer, doing it in person.
This was a dedication game for the Tar Heels one in which the coaching staff asked each player to dedicate his performance to someone. Martin dedicated it to his mother. Switzer, his father.
He put all he had to get me to this level, said Switzer, who grew up about three hours away from Heinz Field, and played on Saturday in front of about 50 family members and friends. Im just a West Virginia homeboy. Im not supposed to really be here right now. And my dad went up and beyond to get me to this point where I am today.
And I wanted to know this game was for him.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter