After his first game against Pittsburgh, a little more than three years ago, Ryan Switzer perhaps described it best – the motivation that propels him when North Carolina plays Pitt.
“I grew up a West Virginia boy,” Switzer said then, after returning two late punts for touchdowns to seal a Tar Heels’ victory. “And we didn’t like Pitt very much.”
For Switzer, that was then: the two punt returns for touchdowns during UNC’s 34-27 victory at Pitt in 2013. And this was now: 16 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown on Saturday during the Tar Heels’ 37-36 comeback victory against the Panthers.
For a West Virginia boy, as Switzer put it, there could be few football accomplishments sweeter than creating long-lasting memories against Pitt. And Switzer, the senior wide receiver, has done that again and again – and again – throughout his four years at UNC.
What he did on Saturday perhaps provided the perfect bookend to what he began as a freshman. Three years ago, those late punt returns helped turn a defeat into a victory. It was the same sort of thing on Saturday, with Switzer playing an integral role during the Tar Heels’ game-winning drive.
UNC won with its final offensive play – a 2-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Trubisky to Bug Howard. It was a play that wouldn’t have been possible, though, had the Tar Heels failed to convert any one of the three fourth downs they faced on that drive.
On two of them, the first and the last, Trubisky passed to Switzer. He made a 15-yard catch on a fourth-and-6, and that play gave the Tar Heels a first down on the Pitt 45-yard-line. Not long after, on UNC’s third fourth down of the drive, Switzer made perhaps the best catch of his four seasons at UNC.
Trubisky’s throw then, on a fourth-and-9 from the Pitt 26, sailed high. Switzer, in the middle of the field, leaped and extended his hands and came down with possession. Asked later how high he jumped, Switzer said “probably not very high, to be honest.”
“I felt like I was out of my body I was so exhausted,” said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Switzer, who finished with a career-high 208 yards receiving.
He paused, for effect, and went on: “I mean, I jump a 35.5 vertical, so maybe it came in handy.”
Maybe. That was Switzer’s 16th and final reception, which tied an ACC and school single-game record. Five plays later, the Tar Heels scored.
Their victory against Pitt was their fourth in fourth seasons. And so Switzer, who’s from Charleston, W.Va., will leave school having experienced nothing but wins against the school he grew up loving to hate.
Switzer’s final count against Pitt: four victories, no losses, 26 catches, 423 yards, three receiving touchdowns, 137 punt return yards and two returns for touchdowns.
He had another punt return for a touchdown on Saturday called back because of a penalty. Had it stood, it would have been his eighth punt return for a touchdown – tying an NCAA record.
“That’s four,” he said, counting his touchdown returns that penalties have nullified. “So, like I said earlier, at this point, I don’t really care about the record.”
It was the only blemish on what will be remembered as Switzer’s finest performance at UNC. Three years ago, he emerged in his freshman season in that victory at Pitt. That, it turned out, was just the beginning of years of sustained success against his personal rival.