CHAPEL HILL — There was a surge of excitement on the North Carolina sideline when Mitch Trubisky connected with Ryan Switzer on a perfectly executed 75-yard flea flicker in Saturday’s win against James Madison.
There was also a sigh of relief.
Because after missing several open receivers downfield in a season opening loss to Georgia and not completing a pass longer than 23 yards in the following week’s win at Illinois, the deep ball had returned to the Tar Heels offense. Trubisky added a second big play later in the half when he hit Mack Hollins for a 71-yard touchdown, adding another important element to an explosive offensive attack just in time for this week’s ACC opener against Pittsburgh at Kenan Stadium.
“(It was) very important, one for just getting your confidence back,” coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week. “It was good for Mitch, it was good for those receivers and for everybody. Just the timing of it. I’m really looking at the distance that he’s throwing the ball versus press coverage, versus soft coverage, all of those different things. If you looked at it, there wasn’t anybody breaking stride on those passes so he was on the money.”
The downfield pass has been a staple of the Tar Heels’ uptempo offense under Fedora. UNC scored 11 touchdowns on throws of 42 yards or more last season with Marquise Williams under center.
Although Trubisky knew he’d eventually start hitting on a few long balls, he admitted that the sight of Switzer hauling in that first one and taking it to the end zone on Saturday took a little weight off his shoulders.
“It felt good. It was relieving,” the junior quarterback said. “We knew it was only a matter of time until it actually happened in a game, because that’s what we do in practice. It was good to see. It takes a load off our guys. That’s what we expect out of our offense. I did my job, the receivers did a great job of getting behind them and making plays.”
The added element of the downfield pass could be especially important against Saturday’s Coastal Division opponent. UNC burned Pittsburgh with two long touchdown passes in last year’s win at Heinz Field. The Panthers also surrendered a 91-yard scoring bomb to Oklahoma State in last week’s 45-38 loss to the Cowboys.
Not only does the threat of the deep ball present more problems for the Panthers’ defense in the pass game, it also has the potential to open up more room on the ground for backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan to run.
“Obviously Mitch found a groove and when things like that happen, the run lanes open up,” said Hood, who posted his first 100-yard rushing effort of the season against James Madison. “Me and T.J. had like five touchdowns. When Mitch is rolling we get to roll as well. We feed off each other. That’s the Larry Fedora mythical balance we try to reach.”
Trubisky, who has improved in each of his first three games as a starter this season, was certainly on a roll Saturday. But even though he completed 24 of 27 passes for 432 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a near-flawless performance, the Tar Heels’ quarterback said he can still be better.
“You try to chance perfection,” Trubisky said. “When you chase perfection, hopefully you just reach greatness. There were like 3-5 throws that maybe were still completed, but they could have gone to somebody else for an even bigger play. I also made some decisions in the run game where maybe there were some options in the pass game I could have done.
“Luckily the O linemen and running backs made me look right by blocking well or making somebody miss. So I just need to continue to be critical of myself, continue to get better and take it to the next level each week.”