Welcome to the day after one of the most dramatic comebacks in the recent history of North Carolina football. Which is what I could have written – and probably did write – after the Tar Heels’ victory against Georgia Tech in Atlanta last season.
There are similarities between Saturday’s 37-36 win over Pittsburgh and the 38-31 win last season against the Yellow Jackets. Last season, UNC rallied from a 21-0 first-half deficit. On Saturday, the Tar Heels came back to life after appearing dead midway though the fourth quarter, trailing 36-23. Both victories inspired emotional, chaotic celebratory scenes afterward.
“I hadn’t even thought about any of that,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said, comparing his team’s victory on Saturday to the one at Georgia Tech. “But yeah. We were down, what, 21 in that game in the first quarter and fought back … just the grit that it took to get this thing done.
“We had the ball 18 minutes? Eighteen minutes to win a football game. That’s tough to do. Tough to do.”
And, as we’re wont to do in these parts, some day-after thoughts:
Mitch Trubisky played as well as any UNC quarterback ever has in a single game.
Let’s get the numbers out of the way. Trubisky passed for 453 yards, the most he’s ever thrown for in a college game and the second-most in a single-game in school history. He threw five touchdown passes, which tied the school record. He set the school record with 30 consecutive completions, a streak that began last week against James Madison. He completed more passes than he ever had in college (35) on more attempts than he’d ever had in college (46).
Trubisky’s brilliance on Saturday goes well beyond the numbers, though. He was spectacular on UNC’s final, winning drive – and especially spectacular on three consecutive fourth-down plays. Fail to execute on any one of those, and the game is over. Trubisky completed passes to convert all of them, and then UNC won on his 2-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard with two seconds remaining.
Trubisky has been around so long that people forget he has started all of four games at UNC. So, not a bad way to finish your fourth college start. There’s more on this coming, but you have to wonder how a performance like this will pay off the rest of the season. What Trubisky did on Saturday had the look and feel of a moment of arrival.
The Tar Heels proved their grit, again, amid unfavorable circumstances.
Last year UNC easily could have folded when it trailed 21-0 at Georgia Tech. We know what happened instead. On Saturday the Tar Heels easily could have folded, again, with Pitt leading 36-23 midway through the fourth quarter. It didn’t look good for UNC. Many had left Kenan Stadium.
After Pitt took that 13-point lead with about 11 minutes remaining, UNC went three-and-out on its next possession. The Tar Heels’ defense, though, forced a critical three-and-out of its own, which gave the Tar Heels possession with 7½ minutes remaining.
That possession ended with Trubisky’s first 2-yard touchdown pass to Howard. Then the UNC defense, which struggled again for long stretches on Saturday, forced another three-and-out that set up the Tar Heels’ winning drive.
The Tar Heels’ defense showed some moxie late.
Overall, it wasn’t a great day for UNC’s defense, which had been publicly admonished earlier in the week by coordinator Gene Chizik. UNC did allow 281 yards rushing and 421 yards overall.
But somehow the Tar Heels were at their defensive best late. It doesn’t make much sense given the amount of time the defense was on the field (more than 41 minutes). The time of possession disparity didn’t seem to have an effect and, if anything, may have helped the defense find some kind of rhythm.
The Tar Heels allowed 59 yards on Pitt’s final four drives. Three of those drives lasted only three plays before the Panthers punted. The defensive resurgence – or emergence, really – allowed the offense the chance to come back.
The not-so good
UNC again displayed an inability to stop the run.
The Tar Heels entered Saturday ranked in the 100s nationally in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per play allowed. What happened against Pitt won’t help those numbers.
The Panthers gained 281 yards – about 50 more than what UNC had been surrendering on average – and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. UNC’s inability to stop or slow the run contributed to its 33-24 loss on Sept. 3 against Georgia, which is looking more mediocre by the week.
And the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles against the run became one of the primary reasons why they nearly lost on Saturday. The story instead is about UNC’s improbable comeback victory, but the concerns surrounding the run defense will remain and the problems don’t appear easily solvable.
The Tar Heels’ running game went missing.
UNC gained 18 yards on 22 carries against Pitt in its worst rushing performance since its game against Miami in October 2014. In that 47-20 loss, the Tar Heels gained 6 yards rushing. They lost big that day, and lost big again later that season against N.C. State, which held UNC to 30 yards rushing.
If you’d told Larry Fedora that his offense would gain 18 yards rushing on Saturday, he’d have likely thought UNC would lose big against Pitt, too. The passing game carried the offense, and Trubisky’s emergence is an immensely positive development for UNC.
Yet the absence of the running game was troubling for UNC, which ran for at least 142 yards in every game last season. Reestablishing the rushing offense will be a priority.
Another game, another safety for the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels have played three games against FBS opponents. In every one of them, they’ve committed a safety. Against Pitt, it happened on UNC’s first offensive play. Backed up on its own 5-yard-line, UNC went with a shovel pass from Trubisky to Switzer that resulted in a 5-yard loss and the safety.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, actually,” Fedora said of his team’s run of safeties.
A look ahead
The schedule becomes no easier for the Tar Heels, who are in the midst of a four-game stretch that will define their season. They’re off to Florida State next weekend. And then back home against Virginia Tech. And then off to Miami in the middle of October.
Which is why UNC’s victory against Pitt was so important. The Tar Heels don’t have much room for error amid this stretch. That they won in such dramatic, compelling fashion should serve them well given the upcoming challenges.