North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said it would be a return to normalcy and hopefully a re-set of sorts for the Tar Heels.
After the state-wide misery caused by Hurricane Florence, disrupting many lives, the Tar Heels finally hosted their home football opener Saturday at Kenan Stadium against the Pitt Panthers. UNC trailed at halftime but used a 17-point third quarter to take charge and win 38-35 in their ACC opener.
Kenny Pickett’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Ffrench pulled the Panthers within 38-35 with 3:12 left. But the Tar Heels (1-2) ran out the clock to seal their first win of the season.
“Our guys fought all 60 minutes,” Fedora said. “They played hard all the way to the end. They just made the decision they were going to finish the game.”
Quarterback Nathan Elliott, given time to throw, was cool and efficient in passing for 313 yards and two touchdowns for UNC, completing 22 of 31 passes.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself and I think he probably relaxed a little,” Fedora said. “He just played football. He didn’t really worry about things.”
Tailback Antonio Williams had 114 yards on 16 carries and twice scored as the Tar Heels finished with 486 yards in total offense.
UNC was to have played Central Florida on Sept. 15, but the threat of the approaching hurricane forced it to be canceled. That was unfortunate in a football sense but understandable, and in the end allowed the Tar Heels time to try and expunge the bad feelings from a 41-19 loss to East Carolina in Greenville on Sept. 8.
It was time to regroup. And time for the state to try and recover, get back to doing normal, every-day things.
“Hopefully there will be some people that will be able to take their mind off the pain and suffering they’ve been going through and enjoy coming out and watching a football game,” Fedora said this week.
UNC, trailing 28-21 at the half, used the decisive third quarter to take a 38-28 lead.
Jordon Brown and freshman wideout Dyami Brown scored TDs and kicker Freeman Jones both started and ended a UNC possession. The senior recovered a Pitt fumble on the kickoff after Dyami Brown’s 19-yard TD catch, then returned to kick a 37-yard field goal.
Pitt (2-2, 1-1 ACC) has had its problems scoring in the second half this season, and the Tar Heels added to those problems Saturday until the final minutes of the game..
“We’ve preached it, that we can do it,” UNC linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “We just had to go out there and finish and out it all together.”
The first half was all about offense. The Panthers had 297 yards, converting five of nine third-down plays and twice converting fourth-down tries. The Tar Heels, in turn, had 244 yards.
Both teams had big plays in the half — Antonio Williams scoring UNC’s first TD with a 37-yard run and Pitt’s Darrin Hall having a 65-yarder for a score late.
Williams, ejected from the ECU game because of a targeting call, played with a purpose Saturday, earning his first 100-yard game.
“He was violent with his runs,” Fedora said.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had said this week that UNC’s offense had playmakers and the ability to make things difficult, noting, “They’re scary because you might not see it on the scoreboard, but it’s going to come.”
It came Saturday. Elliott and Williams did their part and wide receiver Dazz Newsome, who Fedora said “has a knack for making people miss,” had six catches for 110 yards. Anthony Ratliff-Williams added 84 yards on four grabs.
The game took a turn in the second quarter after UNC had taken a 21-14 lead on Elliott’s 31-yard to tailback Michael Carter, who slipped up the middle of the field with no Pitt defender in his vicinity. Hall made a quick left-to-right cut near midfield for his 65-yard touchdown run to tie it, and Pitt took the lead in the final minute of the half on a short TD run by George Aston.
But the Tar Heels were the ones celebrating at the end.
“We were tired of that feeling we had,” Holcomb said. “To finally get a win felt great.”