On a night North Carolina answered its biggest question in the affirmative – can the Tar Heels take care of business against lesser opposition? – there was no answer for one of the strangest plays in recent memory.
Long after everyone has forgotten North Carolina beat Wake Forest 50-14, they’ll still be talking about the fair-catch signal that wasn’t, the weirdness that was Saturday night.
The strangest play of the evening wasn’t the North Carolina touchdown catch that bounced high in the air off a Wake Forest helmet. It was the Ryan Switzer punt return blown dead while Switzer was in mid-stride down the sideline.
In the third quarter, with the outcome still very much in doubt, Ryan Switzer caught a punt, shrugged off the Wake Forest player who bumped into him, and ran for 70 yards down to the shadow of the goal line through a Wake punt coverage team that assumed he called for a fair catch.
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Switzer, replays would show, did not, merely lifting his right hand to his chest briefly while the ball was in the air. But while Switzer neared the end zone, the two officials at the point of the catch conferred and blew the play dead – then threw a flag for delay of game on Switzer, assessing a penalty for returning a punt after a fair-catch signal.
The officials apparently assumed – as did the Wake Forest defenders – that Switzer had called for a fair catch. But he did not. And if he had, Wake Forest should have been penalized for interfering with the catch, which would have offset with the delay-of-game penalty.
The NCAA definition of a valid fair-catch signal is “a signal given by a player of Team B who has obviously signaled his intention by extending one hand only clearly above his head and waving that hand from side to side of his body more than once.” Switzer never came close.
“The referee said he saw a fair catch,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I mean, what are you going to say?”
Switzer never surfaced afterward to give his side of the story, making it the second time in one night he wasn’t seen.
At the time, with North Carolina up 29-14, it was a huge swing, 70 yards of field position. The Tar Heels proceeded to make it as meaningless as it was memorable, punting on that drive but otherwise scoring at will on Wake Forest over the final 24 minutes.
The fans booed heartily for several series after the Ol’ Switzeroo, offering a partial answer to the perennial debate about attendance at Kenan, with the argument that the seemingly endless series of noon ACC starts has kept fans away.
This 7 p.m. kick against an in-state opponent didn’t fill the stadium to capacity, with plenty of aluminum visible in the north stands, but it was still the largest home crowd of the season, an estimated 50,500.
That still left Kenan some 12,000 fans short of capacity, but with the students on fall break, lending credence to the time-of-day-theory. Winning more than eight games would likely help even more, but the Tar Heels haven’t done that since 1997. Now 5-1, they are in a great position to do that this season.
By avoiding any slip-ups Saturday, the Tar Heels remained one of three undefeated teams in the Coastal Division, with games against 3-0 Pittsburgh and 1-0 Duke still to come in the next three weeks. And if not for that inexplicable opening-week stumble against an inexplicably mediocre South Carolina team that even Steve Spurrier couldn’t stomach watching, the Tar Heels might be part of an even bigger discussion.
Switzer, it should be noted, on his next return after the botched call, waved frantically for a fair catch, then gave the ball an authoritative fling toward the official on the sideline, leaving no doubt of his intentions or his assessment.
Neither, for that matter, did the Tar Heels.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock