For the second consecutive season, North Carolina came to life when it appeared most lifeless, and rallied for an improbable victory in its first ACC game. Last year it was at Georgia Tech. This time, on Saturday, it was against Pittsburgh.
Now the Tar Heels will hope their 37-36 victory against the Panthers will serve as the same kind of catalyst as that victory a year ago against the Yellow Jackets. UNC’s win on Saturday, at least, was as improbable as the one against Georgia Tech.
In that game the Tar Heels overcame a 21-0 deficit. In this one, UNC trailed 36-23 with less than seven minutes remaining. The Tar Heels scored the winning touchdown – on Mitch Trubisky’s 2-yard pass to Bug Howard – with two seconds remaining.
Why UNC won:
The Tar Heels persevered. They fought. They were resilient.
All those intangibles were important. So, too, was fourth-quarter execution. UNC cut Pitt’s lead to 36-30 with about 5½ minutes remaining when Trubisky threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Howard (a sequence that would repeat itself later).
Then UNC’s beleaguered defense forced a three-and-out, and Trubisky and the offense converted three consecutive fourth down plays before Trubisky and Howard connected again, this time with two seconds left.
Trubisky, cool and calm when it most mattered, was outstanding. He completed 35 of his 46 attempts for 453 yards and five touchdowns. Ryan Switzer, the senior receiver, caught 16 of those passes for 208 yards and a touchdown.
What it means:
It means that the Tar Heels once again have a gritty victory on which to build their conference season. Last year they used that rally at Georgia Tech as a springboard to finish 8-0 in the ACC. Time will tell how this victory will pay dividends.
UNC, though, appeared headed toward a disappointing defeat here on Saturday. That all changed in the most improbable of ways during the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.
There were several late. Start with UNC’s penultimate drive. The Tar Heels converted a key fourth down on that one, too, before Trubisky-to-Howard Part I. Then, after UNC’s quick defensive stop, the Tar Heels seemed to gain momentum, and confidence, with every subsequent fourth-down conversion. There were three of them on that final drive, which ended with Trubisky-to-Howard Part II.
4. The number of fourth downs UNC converted – all of them in critical moments late in the game. If the Tar Heels fail to convert any of those, they likely don’t win.
Trubisky followed up an impressive dismantling of James Madison last week with a more impressive performance on Saturday. His 453 passing yards were a career high and second in school history. The Tar Heels were going to have opportunities in the passing game against Pitt’s porous pass defense, and Trubisky and his teammates took advantage.
What a comeback for UNC – and one it desperately needed in its quest to repeat as Coastal Division champion. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, with a trip to Florida State next weekend, but this was a monumental victory for the Tar Heels.