The play is called “235 Fade,” and North Carolina likes to use it when it’s near the goal line, like it was on Saturday in the final, maddening seconds of its rally against Pittsburgh. It’s a simple play, a trusted play – a play that Bug Howard appreciates, especially.
He’s the Tar Heels’ senior receiver and, at 6-5, their tallest receiver. Which means that in 235 Fade, Howard is perhaps UNC’s greatest asset – its longest, largest target for quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
“Fifty-fifty balls,” Howard said later, referring to the unpredictably of the fade play, “is my deal. I make the jump balls 80-20.”
Three times in the final seconds, with UNC trailing by a touchdown, with the Tar Heels seeking the kind of improbable comeback victory that propelled them to great success a season ago, they ran 235 Fade, which essentially comes with two options.
“Just a run or a fade,” said Elijah Hood, the junior running back. “It’s game-time football right there.”
The first time UNC ran the play, Hood gained 2 yards. The second time Trubisky threw an incomplete pass.
And the third? The third time they’ll be talking about for a while, because Howard’s 2-yard touchdown reception, which gave UNC a 37-36 victory, instantly became the stuff of storybook endings and backyard dreams come true.
Howard’s catch came with two seconds remaining. He jumped up over Ryan Lewis, the Panthers cornerback who made a futile attempt to interfere with Howard in hopes that he wouldn’t be able to make the play.
“He was holding me all night,” Howard said afterward. “So that wasn’t no surprise.”
The interference didn’t matter. Howard said he knew that if he could free his left hand, he’d make the catch.
Which is how it happened, with Howard snatching Trubisky’s pass with one hand. The moment inspired a rowdy celebration on the Tar Heels’ sideline and in the Kenan Stadium stands among those who’d remained through circumstances that had been bleak for UNC.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers led 36-23. The Tar Heels had been booed. Many in attendance had seen enough, and left their seats amid UNC’s inability to stop Pitt’s rushing offense and make a dent in the Panthers’ lead.
“We had some fans leaving and stuff,” Howard said. “People was giving up on us, man, after they scored that last touchdown. But the defense had our back, we had their back – we told them, get one more stop, we’re going to make it happen.”
It happened in the most improbable of ways. Several factors aligned for UNC to complete a comeback that was reminiscent of its victory at Georgia Tech last season. In that game, the Tar Heels rallied from a 21-0 first-half deficit.
In this one, on Saturday, they trailed by 13 points with less than six minutes to play. UNC had possession then, at least. It ended that drive with Trubisky’s first 2-yard touchdown pass to Howard, a moment that proved to be a precursor of what was to come.
We had some fans leaving and stuff. People was giving up on us, man, after they scored that last touchdown. But the defense had our back, we had their back – we told them, get one more stop, we’re going to make it happen.
The Panthers took over with 5½ minutes remaining. By then they’d run for about 280 yards, and all they needed to do was keep running effectively to melt the clock. Four plays later, though, they were punting after UNC’s beleaguered defense forced another three-and-out, its third in four possessions.
Afterward, Fedora and his players described those defensive stands through the team’s “I’ve got your back” mantra. Players repeated the phrase to one another throughout on Saturday, Fedora said, even in dire moments. Fedora said he heard it early, even after a Hood fumble in the first quarter.
Defensive players ran onto the field, he said, saying, “We’ve got your back. Don’t worry about it.”
“And that’s the way it was throughout the entire game, no matter what happened,” Fedora said.
UNC’s final defensive stand gave the Tar Heels possession on their own 37-yard-line with about 3½ minutes remaining. Three times on that final drive UNC faced a fourth down – a convert-or-lose moment. On all of them, UNC needed at least 6 yards.
And on all of them, Trubisky completed passes of at least 9 yards: a 15-yard completion to Ryan Switzer on fourth-and-6, a 13-yard completion to Austin Proehl on another fourth-and-6, a 9-yard completion to Switzer, again, who jumped high for that catch, on a fourth-and-9 from the Pitt 26.
“That’s who he is,” Fedora said of Trubisky, who completed 35 of his 46 attempts for 453 yards and five touchdowns. “When good things happen, you don’t see him going crazy.
“And when bad things happen, you don’t see anything. He’s pretty even-keeled, all the way. You don’t really know what his emotions are, which is really an ideal situation for a leader.”
Earlier in the week Trubisky, whose 453 passing yards were the second-most in school history, and the UNC offense had lost its two-minute drill against the defense in practice. Now the Tar Heels were converting fourth down after fourth down, moving methodically inside the Panthers’ 5-yard-line as time grew scarcer.
On first-and-goal from the 4, the call came in: 235 Fade. UNC used the same play last season in overtime at Virginia Tech, where Marquise Williams passed to Quinshad Davis for the winning touchdown. And now here it was again, three consecutive times until it worked.
“Different quarterbacks, different receivers – same result,” Hood said.
The victory on Saturday, he said, felt like the one at Georgia Tech last year. Only better.
“I can’t fathom how tough we are,” Hood said.
UNC in that comeback a season ago built character that provided a foundation for its success. Amid a wild celebration at the end on Saturday, the Tar Heels hoped for something similar. Before kickoff, Fedora reminded his players of the opportunity before them.
“We talked about before the game, is we had an opportunity to establish the identity of this football team,” Fedora said. “And I can say there’s a lot of grit in this football team, for one – a lot toughness.”
It was an intangible that served Trubisky well, especially. He said later that he felt no nerves, no pressure, during that final drive. He said, simply, that he was only “doing my job,” as if that final drive was unmemorable, routine.
Entering this season, Trubisky had been waiting three years to be UNC’s starting quarterback. He had been waiting for the kind of moment he found himself in late in the fourth quarter and Switzer, Trubisky’s roommate and favorite target on Saturday against Pitt, remembered the journey afterward.
“I’m proud of Mitch,” said Switzer, who tied a school and ACC record with 16 receptions for 208 yards. “I love him. I told him that on the sideline. Me and him specifically have dreamed of moments like this.
“It was tough for him the first three years, being here, not being the guy. I was one of the guys seeing when he was in his room or just didn’t feel like it because he wasn’t playing. So that’s why it hits me a little bit harder than most, because I’ve seen how much he’s struggled.”
There was no such struggle against Pitt, though, at least not for Trubisky. There was only a passing performance that joined the greatest in school history and, in the final seconds, the successful and memorable execution of 235 Fade.
Trubisky didn’t consider it a 50-50 pass, not “when you’ve got Bug Howard out there,” he said. Howard secured the pass, UNC survived a 46-yard kickoff return that crossed midfield and the Tar Heels celebrated what had seemed so improbable minutes earlier.
“I think we know what we’re made of,” Trubisky said.