There wasn’t much gamesmanship about the decision, Larry Fedora said later, no dueling egos and no desire, he said, to prove that North Carolina could do Virginia one better. Not that Bug Howard necessarily agreed with any of that.
“First of all,” Howard, the Tar Heels’ senior receiver, said after his team’s 35-14 victory at Virginia on Saturday, “that was the first time I’ve ever seen a snapper score. … But yeah, with that trick play then it was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be that type of game?’ And so we came right back at them.”
With about 5½ minutes remaining before halftime on Saturday, Fedora, the Tar Heels coach, contemplated calling a timeout. At the time, Virginia had lined up for a field goal on a fourth down and then switched into a funky formation, several players lined up out wide to the left, a tight end at center.
Fedora had seen this before. Not in person, necessarily, but on film.
He knew what was coming, but he wasn’t sure his defense knew.
“I was going to call a timeout,” he said, “and the defense said, ‘We got this.’ ”
And then, moments later, the Cavaliers were celebrating an 11-yard touchdown pass from Matt Johns to Evan Butts, the tight end who began the whole sequence with a snap that looked more like toss, the kind more fitting for a game of touch football in the backyard on Thanksgiving.
In the moment, the play tied the score at 7. The Tar Heels’ offense, to that point, had sputtered. Four of UNC’s first five drives on Saturday at Scott Stadium ended without points. And now the Cavaliers had just tied the score with some trickery, and the beleaguered spectators had reason for hope.
UNC began its next drive on its own 19-yard line. It was an important drive. Another failure, and the Cavaliers could have regained possession with a chance to take the lead before halftime. UNC moved methodically to its own 33, then its own 48 and then it had a first down on the Virginia 40.
“We didn’t call a trick play because they called a trick play,” Fedora said later.
No, the Tar Heels called it because finally, after weeks, they believed it just might work. In Fedora’s five seasons at UNC, the Tar Heels have often excelled in the dark art of deception. A surprise onside kick here – the kind of which nearly worked at Miami last week. A wide receiver pass there.
And don’t forget the flea flicker, which UNC used with success on its first play against Duke last season and, again, earlier this season in a victory against James Madison. This time, the Tar Heels did something different. They lined up T.J. Logan at quarterback in the wildcat formation.
“They hadn’t seen it from us,” Fedora said. “The last time we ran that play was against Notre Dame a few years ago. And so they hadn’t seen it, probably hadn’t seen it on film.”
Logan, the senior running back, received the snap and handed off to Ryan Switzer, a receiver who was cutting across the field parallel to the line of scrimmage. Then Switzer tossed back to Mitch Trubisky, the quarterback. And then Trubisky threw deep to Howard, who made the catch for a 40-yard touchdown.
If there was a line of delineation on Saturday – a before-and-after moment that changed the outcome as much as any single play can – it was that: Trubisky to Howard for 40 yards. From then on, the Tar Heels were mostly in control, their lead eventually growing to 28-7 late in the third quarter.
“It gives us some momentum, and definitely brings some energy,” Trubisky, who completed 24 of his 31 attempts for 310 yards and three touchdowns, said of UNC’s trick play. “It shouldn’t have to take a trick play for us to get pumped up and juiced up on the sidelines.
“I like to see more intensity and passion out of the whole team as a whole. But sometimes you need something like a trick play to get us going, and I think helped.”
Before that play, the score was tied and the Tar Heels’ offense had been unusually ineffective. And then came the aftermath: the momentum the Tar Heels took into the locker room at halftime and then carried into their dominant performance in the third quarter, when they put the game away.
UNC excelled in other areas on Saturday. It followed a strong defensive performance at Miami last weekend with another one at Virginia, which mustered a meager 3 yards per play. The Cavaliers punted 10 times and failed to convert 16 of their 19 third downs.
Elijah Hood, the Tar Heels’ junior running back, finished with 107 yards – his second 100-yard game of the season. And Trubisky turned in the kind of performance that has become routine. UNC’s trickery, though, provided the turning point.
“I thought Mitch was going to throw it to me originally,” Switzer said, “but I was able to be a fan on that play when I saw the ball in the air. I was able to watch the play unfold, and watch Bug go up and make a tremendous catch.”
Howard, who wore a No. 13 jersey in honor of his injured teammate Mack Hollins, knew what was coming. He said UNC began that play with a “freeze count” that allowed the offense to dissect Virginia’s defense.
Howard at that moment was matched up against a safety. Logan received the snap, setting the sequence in motion.
“As soon as he hand the ball off to Switz and No. 3 just shot the gap, I was like, ‘Yep – there it is,’ ” Howard said.
The Tar Heels had been practicing it since the first week of practice in the preseason, Howard said, but that particular play became a more important priority in recent weeks. UNC had tried to use it at Miami, Fedora said, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.
It arrived here on Saturday. Was it a double-reverse, a reverse option? Switzer said he didn’t even know, really.
“A trick play,” Fedora said. “It’s a gadget play. … There were two other gadgets that got called that we checked out of during the game, that you may see two weeks from now, or three weeks from now.”
The Tar Heels showed this one on Saturday and, as has usually been the case under Fedora, it worked.