Tar Heels find an identity in gritty come-from-behind win vs. Pitt

Even after giving up an early safety, possessing the ball for only 19 of the games 60 minutes, botching a fake extra point and trailing by 13 deep into the fourth quarter, UNC still managed to find a way to win.

Jeremy Brevard—USA Today Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Bug Howard catches the game-tying touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Carolina defeated Pitt 37-36.

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s Larry Fedora has a standard answer when asked to assess his team’s chances at the start of every season. “You really don’t know what you have,” he’ll say, “until you face some adversity.” Saturday, four games into 2016 campaign, Fedora’s Tar Heels faced as much adversity as any coach could possibly imagine in their ACC opener against Pittsburgh. Much of it self-inflicted. And yet, even after giving up an early safety, possessing the ball for only 19 of the game’s 60 minutes, botching a fake extra point and trailing by 13 deep into the fourth quarter, UNC still managed to find a way to win. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky led the improbable comeback by calmly engineering two late scoring drives, the second of which included three pressure-packed fourth down conversions. His two-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard with two seconds remaining gave the Tar Heels their only lead of the day and an important 37-36 Coastal Division victory. “We learned a lot about our football team tonight,” Fedora said after his team’s ninth straight home win. “We talked about it before the game. We had an opportunity to establish the identity of this football team and I can say there is a lot of grit in this team for one, a lot of toughness and all the intangibles that we need to be successful. I can’t say enough good things about them.” UNC (3-1, 1-0 ACC) needed every ounce of that grit and toughness to claw its way out of the hole it dug for itself against the Panthers (2-2, 0-1). Things began to unravel quickly after what appeared to be an 89-yard punt return by Ryan Switzer was called back by a holding penalty. Instead of being up 7-0, the Tar Heels found themselves trailing 2-0 when Switzer was tackled in the end zone on a jet sweep. It was the third safety UNC has surrendered in four games this season. Things got even worse when after Chris Blewitt field goal increased Pitt’s lead to five, the usually sure-handed Elijah Hood fumbled the ball right back to the Panthers. This time the visitors converted the turnover into a touchdown that increased the margin to 12-0 two minutes into the second quarter. At that point, UNC had run a total of four offensive plays for a grand total of 11 yards while possessing the ball for just 33 seconds. Pitt, on the other hand, had snapped the ball 27 times for 120 yards. Although the Tar Heels eventually got their act together and began finding an offensive rhythm of their own, they spent the rest of the unseasonably hot afternoon battling back from their dismal start.”The performance tonight was amazing,” Hood said afterward. “We believed in each other. We had no other options. We just kept making plays and fighting. I can not fathom how tough we are. The fact that we were able to come back from the deficit is a testament to who we are as a team.” Not everyone at Kenan Stadium was as convinced of the Tar Heels’ ability to rally as were Hood and his teammates. Many of the 54,500 in attendance began to boo, then head for the exits after their team went three-and-out for the second straight possession with 9:10 remaining. Pitt led 36-23 at the time and with UNC’s defense seemingly defenseless to slow the Panthers’ run game — which churned out 281 yards behind Quadree Henderson and James Conner — the situation looked bleak at best. But the Tar Heels finally got the stop they needed and everything seemed to change. “Everybody just told each other that we were going to win this game no matter what,” senior defensive Mikey Bart said. “There were no real adjustments, it was just having a lot of pride and doing our best.” Trubisky took advantage of the opportunity by leading his offense right down the field for a touchdown that got UNC back to within six. He then got the ball right back to set the stage for what could potentially turn out to be a season- and career-defining drive. “Everybody seemed pretty confident,” said Trubisky, who compiled career-high totals of 35 completions on 46 passes for 453 yards and five touchdowns. “Guys were talking ‘We got this, we got this’ and ‘One play at a time.’ … Once we got that first (first down), it felt like we were going to score. It was just a matter of time.” That air of inevitability grew with each fourth down the Tar Heels converted. The first came on a fourth-and-six play from the UNC 41 when Trubisky hit Switzer for a 15-yard gain. Four plays later, needing six yards to extend the drive, Trubisky found Austin Proehl across the middle for 13.