Tar Heels never gave up Saturday, even if some of their fans did

Brett Friedlander

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) celebrates with the student section after the college football game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL — It’s become something of a local social media tradition for rival fans to tauntingly post pictures of empty seats at Kenan Stadium before North Carolina home football games.That wasn’t an issue Saturday.There were plenty of people in the stands when the Tar Heels’ game against Pittsburgh started at 3:30 p.m. This time, the discussion was more about how many of the announced crowd of 54,500 were still in the seats 3½ hours later when UNC completed its come-from-behind 37-36 victory.And instead of rival fans, it was the Tar Heels themselves that raised the issue.”Any time you get a win like that when fans are leaving the stadium and everybody’s counting you out? Yes, we noticed that.” wide receiver Ryan Switzer said afterward. “We noticed people leaving. But we felt like we still were in the game no matter what.”Switzer wasn’t the only member of the Tar Heels to mention the exodus of fans heading toward the exits once their team fell behind their ACC Coastal Division rival by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter.Defensive tackle Nazair Jones said Monday that it was hard not to notice what was going on in the stands, even as they continued to battle on the field in an effort to pull the game out. UNC scored two touchdowns in the final 7½ minutes to rally for the victory.The winning score came on a two-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Trubisky to Bug Howard with just two seconds remaining.”I obviously had my focus on the game, but you could just look up and see the stairs are full with people going the other way,” Jones said. “You want to focus on the game, but it’s kind of glaring.”Still, enough fans stayed around until the bitter end to provide what coach Larry Fedora called an “electric” atmosphere when Howard outmuscled a Pitt defender for the ball in the end zone.”The fans, they were our edge,” Fedora said. “That was a big key for us.”Jones agreed, so much so that he took to Twitter after the game to thank those fans stayed for all four quarters and played a major role in fueling a comeback that saw the Tar Heels drive 63 yards on 17 plays in the final 3:33.”I’m the kind of guy that feeds off that stuff,” Jones said. “It just gives us that little edge that we need at home sometimes to have people there with us and believing in us. They deserved to see that win.”Support for the program in general and home attendance in particular have become something of a thorny issue for UNC since the NCAA’s investigation into the school’s athletic program began in 2010.The average announced crowds at the 63,000-seat Kenan Stadium have hovered around the 50,000 mark over the past five seasons, although the actual number of people in the seats has been noticeably less on numerous occasions.This year’s two-game average of 55,250, boosted by the Tar Heels’ 11-win Coastal Division championship season a year ago, is the most since Fedora’s tenure began in 2012.Although Jones said that things are “definitely getting better,” he added that the task of changing the football culture at UNC has only just begun. Games like the one on Saturday certainly won’t hurt the process, at least in persuading the fans that do come not to give up on their team too soon.”It would be nice to see it more often, but as players we can’t focus on that,” Jones said. “(Fans) want to see a good game, so we can’t go out there and give up 300-400 yards rushing. That’s not things they want to see. As we start to perform better, they’ll start to stick around more often.”