When North Carolina’s 48-14 victory against Illinois on Saturday came to its merciful end, the Tar Heels offensive players praised their teammates from the defense and the defensive players praised their teammates on offense, and just about everyone had nice things, too, to say about Ryan Switzer and his punt returns.
“He’s back,” UNC sophomore running back Elijah Hood, smiling widely, said of Switzer, who returned one fourth-quarter punt 85 yards for a touchdown. “I’m so happy. I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s back.’ Ryan’s a special guy when he gets that ball in his hands on punt returns, and we always believe in him.”
That teammates would compliment each other the way they did at UNC on Saturday is not uncommon. Yet it had been a good while since such praise was as widespread, and as warranted, as it was after the Tar Heels’ dismantling of the Illini, a Big Ten team that had arrived in Chapel Hill after two lopsided victories of its own.
Before Saturday, UNC had rebounded from its sloppy, mistake-filled season-opening defeat against South Carolina with an easy victory against N.C. A&T, a lower-division opponent. The game against Illinois, which UNC coach Larry Fedora had insisted is better than South Carolina, was supposed to provide the Tar Heels with another stern test.
Instead it perhaps offered a glimpse at their considerable potential, at least when things go as well as they did on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. UNC’s offense, which labored against South Carolina and still seemed out of sync, at times, even against N.C. A&T, came to life against Illinois.
There were highlights – like quarterback Marquise Williams’ 41-yard run that set up his 9-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to Quinshad Davis, whose 22nd career touchdown reception set a school record – but the offensive success was usually methodical, especially in the second half after UNC turned a 20-7 halftime lead into a runaway victory.
After all that talk about Illinois’ might, that the Illini was the best team UNC had seen early in the season, Williams was asked what was different on Saturday than, say, against South Carolina.
“Today’s Marquise wasn’t like it was against South Carolina,” he said. “That’s what was missing.”
Williams threw an interception on UNC’s first drive on Saturday but that was it – UNC’s only turnover. The Tar Heels scored on their next four drives, and they scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second half, all the while driving the point home that they weren’t content merely to win but to earn some style points in the process.
And indeed, it had been a long time – perhaps going back to a victory late last season at Duke – that UNC had looked this good against an opponent from a major conference. The Tar Heels’ victory against Illinois was their most lopsided against a non-conference team from a major conference since a 42-3 win against Virginia Tech in Gator Bowl at the end of the 1997 season.
Entering Saturday, that was one of the questions that surrounded the Tar Heels – whether they could put it together against an opponent that appeared to be on their level. There were moments of promise against South Carolina but, ultimately, a defeat. There was little of significance to take from the performance last week against N.C. A&T, which was overmatched. And then came Saturday.
“I think we could still play a lot better than we played,” Fedora said. “But I am proud of the fact that we did play a complete game. We made game-changing plays on special teams. Offensively we did a nice job, at times. Defensively we stiffened up when we needed to and created some takeaways.”
One of those came on Illinois’ first drive, which ended with a turnover on downs after UNC stopped the Illini on a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Another Illinois drive ended with an interception – cornerback M.J. Stewart perfectly timed Wes Lunt’s pass before sprinting in front of it – and the Tar Heels capitalized on that turnover with their first touchdown.
And then, yes, Switzer did what he so often did during his freshman season, when he returned five punts for touchdowns during the final five games of the 2013 season. Entering Saturday it had been that long since Switzer had returned a punt for a touchdown.
He nearly ended the drought in the second quarter, when he returned a punt 71 yards to the Illinois’ 19-yard line. Then he broke through again in the fourth quarter with a return that didn’t stop until he reached the end zone. It had began 85 yards away.
Switzer, whose six punt returns for touchdowns are two short of tying the NCAA record, said it was “a relief” to finally return one for a touchdown, again. When he remembered the moment afterward, Williams, the quarterback, said, “Thank God.” They had seen something that they’d seen before but not in a long time.
The same could be said, too, of UNC’s overall performance – clean and complete. It was the kind of game that shows what’s possible when all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – excel more often than not, what’s possible when the Tar Heels’ playmakers, like Switzer, make plays.
“It was nice to put it all together,” Switzer said. “This is a different team than last year. Same group of guys. But different team. Different mindset, different attitude. And we came out and proved it today.”
That was the Tar Heels’ hope, anyway – that a complete victory was a turning point, and a glimpse of what’s yet to come.