Back in Chapel Hill, folks, after North Carolina’s dramatic 34-27 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday. And just like that, thanks in no small part to Ryan Switzer, the Tar Heels have won four consecutive games and are .500 after that dreadful 1-5 start.
Switzer, the freshman receiver from West Virginia, returned two punts for touchdowns – including one he brought back 61 yards to give the Tar Heels the lead for good with about five minutes to play. Here’s the story of the game. And another story about Kareem Martin the UNC defense.
And, without further delay, the look back:
1. The turnaround is complete.
The Tar Heels spent the first half of the season digging themselves a deep hole. They’ve spent the past four games climbing out of that hole, and now stand on even ground. UNC during its first six games was among the most disappointing teams in the nation. Now, it can be said that the Tar Heels could be among the most resilient, too. Each of UNC’s past four victories has been impressive in its own way, whether they came in a rout, like against Virginia, or in a relatively close game, like the one against N.C. State. On Saturday, UNC gave away a 24-point second-half lead, but still found a way.
2. Ryan Switzer has arrived … and he could turn out to be something special.
You might say Switzer is already something special, and it’d be difficult to argue after what he did on Saturday. Late in the second quarter, he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown that gave UNC a 24-3 lead. Then, of course, came what he did in the fourth quarter. Switzer tied the single-game school record with those two punt returns for touchdowns, and now he has three of those for the season – which is a school record. Switzer has proven himself as a capable and dangerous punt returner. The next task: Finding his niche in the offense. UNC has a lot of young, capable receivers: Quinshad Davis. Bug Howard. This group could be really good in the coming years.
3. The defense continues to get it done.
Who ever thought about six weeks ago that we’d reach a point when the Tar Heels’ defense could be considered a strength instead of a liability? Well, we might be there, folks. Pitt has some weapons on offense, and the Tar Heels did a nice job of containing them. The biggest positive? The Tar Heels generated more defensive pressure than they have all season – especially in the first half – and finished with seven sacks, their most since the victory against ECU last season. The seven sacks were also the most UNC has had in a conference game since 2000, when it sacked Wake Forest 10 times in one game. The defense did its part, too, in some difficult circumstances. North Carolina turnovers twice gave Pitt field position deep in UNC territory in the fourth quarter. On one of those possessions, the Tar Heels forced a field goal. The defense also forced the three-and-out that led to Switzer’s game-winning return, and then the defense stopped Pitt on its final drive.
--UNC’s defensive pressure.
At times the Tar Heels blitzed on Saturday. At times they didn’t. Regardless, though, they more often than not generated great pressure on the Pitt passing game.
--Marquise Williams’ running – especially in the first half.
Williams showed in the first half why he’s probably a better fit for this offense at this point than Bryn Renner. And that’s no knock on Renner, who’s the better passer. But Williams’ mobility adds a dimension to UNC’s offense that wasn’t there earlier this season. His two touchdown runs – one of 16 yards, the other 10 – were plays of improvisation.
--Holding the lead.
UNC did a good job in dominant victories of putting away both Boston College and Virginia, but Saturday was a different story. The Tar Heels led 27-3 early in the third quarter, but allowed Pitt to tie the game about 15 minutes of game action later.
--The passing game.
UNC’s passing offense wasn’t bad, per se, but it generated a season-low 173 yards. It was also the first time this season that the Tar Heels haven’t had a passing touchdown. The offense is more dynamic because of Williams’ running ability, but without Renner the passing game isn’t as good as it was. That’s the give and take between both quarterbacks.
UNC found plenty of ways to lose earlier this season. There was the second half collapse in the loss at Georgia Tech. There were the constant defensive breakdowns in the defeat against East Carolina. There were the mental mistakes – especially on that fourth-quarter delay of game penalty – in the loss against Miami.
Now, though, UNC is finding a way to win. After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels evened their record at 5-5 on Saturday. They’ve now won four consecutive games. Still, you can’t help but wonder what might have been for this team had it put together just a little bit sooner.
The loss against Miami looms especially large. Hold on to win that game – and it was a game UNC should have won – and the Tar Heels are hosting Duke in two weeks with a berth in the ACC championship game at stake. What might have been.