In the beginning there were a lot of incomplete passes, a lot of inefficiency on offense for North Carolina and a lot of hits that Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels' junior quarterback, endured. Then things changed for UNC on Saturday against Pitt.
And when Williams thought about why they had he remembered those blows he absorbed and the frustration that came with the pain. He remembered thinking that Pitt's defensive players, some of them, at least, were trying to knock him out of the game.
“When that guy hit me, I got angry at myself,” Williams said of one particularly hard collision after UNC's 40-35 victory against Pitt. “I got angry at the ref that they didn't call a personal foul. They were really trying to take some hits on me all day. But that's what I told myself – let's get this offense rolling.”
For a little while on Saturday it looked like UNC (5-5, 3-3 ACC), playing after an off week, was still stuck in South Florida, where two weeks ago against Miami the Tar Heels might have provided their least inspired performance of the season during a lackluster defeat. But then Williams got angry, as he said, and the Tar Heels finished with a victory that puts them one win away from bowl eligibility.
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“It's just the will of everyone to win,” said Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver who caught a 63-yard touchdown pass. “I think everyone realizes how much we've really put in. We've put in an enormous amount of work these past two weeks to be prepared to play today. And guys just don't quit.”
Williams played through pain, whether he acknowledged it or not, during that loss at Miami two weeks ago. And he did again on Saturday, when he shook off hit after hit to lead the Tar Heels to comebacks – twice – that allowed them to overcome a poor start.
UNC trailed 14-0 and 21-7 early. Later, with about 3 ½ minutes to play, the Tar Heels trailed again, 35-34, after Pitt running back James Conner scored his fourth touchdown, this one on a 22-yard run.
Williams and his teammates on offense had been in this situation before. It was reminiscent to the circumstances UNC faced nearly a month ago in a come-from-behind victory against Georgia Tech. Only now, the Tar Heels had even more time than they did then.
“Three minutes and 33 seconds – we had three timeouts,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “So that's an eternity for us.”
On UNC's final drive, Williams converted a 3rd-and-10 on the Tar Heels' 37-yard line with a 12-yard pass to Mack Hollins, who made the catch near the UNC sideline. Later, with about 90 seconds to play, Williams ran for 6 yards on a 4th-and-2 from the Pitt 29.
Given UNC's poor field goal kicking this season – the Tar Heels haven't made one longer than 23 yards – the decision to go for it on fourth down might have seemed obvious. Fedora said the play call, though – a read-option for Williams to either hand off or run – caused some concern.
“There was a lot of question in my mind,” Fedora said. “But I knew that I wanted (Williams) to have an opportunity to keep it if we needed to.”
Moments after Williams' 6-yard run, he completed a 23-yard pass to Quinshad Davis, who dragged defenders to the 1-yard line. From there, T.J. Logan, the sophomore running back, did the rest, giving UNC the lead for good with a short touchdown run with 50 seconds remaining.
Logan's run was the fourth of UNC's four rushing touchdowns – with the first three coming from Williams, who ran for 122 yards and passed for 276 more. After completing four of his first 16 attempts, Williams finished 23-for-40, and set a school record with 16 consecutive completions.
“Quise is one of the toughest guys I know,” said Davis, the junior receiver. “He played with turf toe, bruised ribs, everything – and still played. So yeah, him getting up from a tough hit, it doesn't shock me because I know how tough he is.”
It wasn't over, though, after Williams led UNC on that 75-yard drive that ended in Logan's run. Pitt (4-6, 2-4) still had 50 seconds, and it still had Conner, who ran for 220 yards – fifth-most ever against a UNC defense.
The Panthers' hopes, though, evaporated when Chad Voytik, the sophomore quarterback, fumbled near midfield after a 21-yard gain. Malik Simmons, the junior defensive back, made the hit that caused the fumble and Shakeel Rashad recovered it.
And so ended a wild victory for the Tar Heels – a win in which they came back from deficits large and small, early and late, with Williams personifying his team's grit.