If this really was Mitch Trubisky's final college game this is how he'll remember it: “It's going to feel like unfinished business,” he said, “and that's not something I like to do.”
Trubisky, the North Carolina quarterback, was talking in the moments after the Tar Heels' 25-23 defeat against Stanford in the Sun Bowl here on Friday, in the moments after he nearly led another dramatic comeback victory. Trubisky had done that a time or two this season.
There was the improbable, memorable drive late against Pittsburgh in September, when in the final seconds he threw the winning touchdown pass to Bug Howard, the senior receiver. There was the game at Florida State, when Trubisky helped the Tar Heels move across midfield as time grew scarcer.
Then Trubisky knelt on the sideline while Nick Weiler made a 54-yard field goal to win that game as the clock hit zero. That was in early October, nearly three months ago, when the season seemed new and when optimism seemed to grow by the week.
And now it was over, and in a way that neither Trubisky nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the Tar Heels were 7-2, and 5-1 in the ACC, after a Nov. 5 victory against Georgia Tech. Who could have known then that the victory that day would be the Tar Heels' last against a Power 5 conference opponent?
Who could have envisioned defeats against Duke and N.C. State and now Stanford to end the season? Sometimes, Trubisky said on Friday, the days seem to drag. The endless run of practices. Weeks after weeks of game weeks. But now his junior season was a thing of the past.
“It's really blown by,” Trubisky said after he completed 23 of his 39 attempts for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which Dallas Lloyd, the Stanford safety, returned for a 19-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. In defeat, Trubisky set the single-season school record for total offense, finishing with 4,056 yards. Not that it was any consolation.
“We were in the situation we were in because I couldn't take care of the football,” Trubisky said, “and it's something I've got to work on going forward. But I'm proud of the way they had my back, and we had to go 97 yards and they said let's do it, and that's what we did.”
Indeed, UNC went 97 yards during the final 90 seconds. Trubisky threw another late touchdown pass to Howard, who redeemed himself after dropping another would-be touchdown pass moments earlier. And then UNC's two-point conversion attempt never had a chance.
Trubisky lined up under center, dropped back and immediately found himself under siege. He lacked the time even to attempt a pass. The ending brought the obvious question, one that has surrounded Trubisky for weeks, if not months: Was this his final college game?
“I'm not going to think about it for a couple of days,” he said. “Just go home, relax, spend time with my family. I'm just going to do whatever my heart tells me to do. I'm going to pray about it, just relax and whatever I feel is right, that's what I'm going to do.”
He is widely considered to be among the top quarterback prospects eligible for the NFL draft, if not the best of those prospects. The New York Daily News recently featured Trubisky on its back cover, promoting a story about the New York Jets' interest in drafting him. The talking heads have said he could be the No. 1 pick.
On Friday, scouts from no fewer than eight NFL teams were in attendance at Sun Bowl Stadium, undoubtedly dissecting Trubisky. The Cleveland Browns, who play not far from Trubisky's hometown of Mentor, Ohio, had people here. So did the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and others.
The attention surrounding Trubisky has been good for UNC and good for its football program, coach Larry Fedora said recently. He said he has heard from a number of quarterbacks, both in high school and college, who admire how Trubisky has developed.
The recent attention, though, has not necessarily been good for Trubisky. He said on Friday that he abhorred the hype, the questions, the constant speculation about his future. All these weeks, people have been wondering what he's going to do.
“Honestly I hate it,” Trubisky said. “I think it's just become a distraction for me and this team, honestly. Because sometimes people talk more about that than they do the game, and I was just so focused on that game that that's all people want to talk about.
“I mean, I'll get to that decision when the time is right. But I owe it to these guys to give 110 percent of my heart, my body, my soul – everything to this team. And then for people to ask about the future decision, I mean, that's just stuff I can't control. I'll get to that when I get to that.”
The time to get to it is approaching. Fedora hasn't indicated what he thinks Trubisky might do. Neither have his teammates. On the surface, it seems unlikely that he'd return given the strong chance that he'd be a first-round pick.
Then there's the other side of it, too, and the thought that another year at UNC could benefit Trubisky the way it did Andrew Luck, the former Stanford quarterback who decided to return to school when he could have left to become a top draft pick. Trubisky didn't indicate which way he's leaning.
“But I'm going to figure it out,” he said. “I'm going to take a couple of days off, relax, pray about it, do what's best for me. But I'm just so grateful I had this chance to come to the University of North Carolina and be the starting quarterback this year.
“And I'm just going to go from there and hope for the best.”
Not far away Ryan Switzer, the senior receiver and Trubisky’s closest friend on the team, was finishing up another interview. Switzer had played his final college game, and Trubisky might have done the same. When Switzer’s interview ended they sat on a golf cart and rode back to the UNC locker room together.