In what could rightfully be called a "game of runs" UNC raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead but needed a Ryan Switzer punt return for a touchdown sandwiched between two defensive stands to pull out a 34-27 win. It is the fourth straight win for the Tar Heels who are now 5-5 after a disastrous 1-5 start.
The first half of this game may have been UNC's best of the season following a rocky start. Pitt's opening drive of the game resulted in a field goal. Following a three and out by the Tar Heels, Pitt threatened again following a questionable pass interference call in the end zone. That is when Kareem Martin, who continues to dominate, sacked Panther quarterback Tom Savage and forced a fumble which was promptly recovered by Travis Hughes.
The turnover was the spark UNC offense needed to get going with Marquise Williams engineering a 76-yard touchdown drive which included a 4th and 9 conversion at the Pitt 35-yard line. Williams capped off the drive with a 16-yard touchdown scramble out of a pass play to give the Heels a 7-3 lead. It was the first of three straight scoring possessions for the Heels. A Thomas Moore field goal and another Williams touchdown run in the red zone gave UNC a 17-3 lead as he half wound down.
Meanwhile on the defensive side, the Tar Heels dominated the Pitt offensive line and got constant pressure in the Panther backfield. The Tar Heel defense sacked Savage five times in the first half with two of those coming on a late second quarter Pitt drive. The stop forced a Panther punt with a minute to go leading to Ryan Switzer 65-yard return for a touchdown. The return was Switzer's second of the season(that counted) and gave the Heels a 24-3 lead at the break.
Then came a near implosion of epic proportions.
After extending the lead to 27-7 early in the third quarter on a Moore field goal, the Pitt offense finally managed to poke some holes in the Tar Heel defense. Savage found Devin Street for a 33-yard touchdown pass to cut the Tar Heel lead to 17. After the Heels failed to move the football, Savage drove Pitt 96-yards to make it a ten point game. With the defense struggling some to contain the surging Pitt offense, UNC did the worst possible thing it could do. Turned the ball over on back-to-back possession giving Pitt a short field both times. The first was Romar Morris fumble at the 29-yard line which Pitt converted into a field goal. On the kickoff T.J. Logan coughed the ball up at the 13 yard line. Two plays and another questionable pass interference call later, the game was tied at 27.
At this point, the game felt as though it was heading towards a conclusion very much like UNC experienced in the Miami game. And when the Heels punted with a little over six minutes left, the sensation of deja vu was overwhelming. However, the defense again found its footing again forcing a three and out deep in Pittsburgh territory.
And then Ryan Switzer happened....again.
Switzer, he of the called back punt returns and receptions for touchdowns, finally got over the hump last week with a punt return for a score against Virginia. He repeated the feat at the end of the first half at a point it looked like UNC was about to run away with the game. Now with the Tar Heels in a pitch battle, the offense struggling to move the football and some legitimate questions on whether the the defense could hold out on another drive, Switzer got his Gio Bernard on and returned the Panther punt 61-yards for his second touchdown of the game to give UNC 34-27 lead.
Pitt still had plenty of time left to make something happen but the defense again stepped up stopping a pair of Panther rushing plays on 3rd and 4th down to seal the game.
Overall, the defense actually played quite well with the exception of the two Pitt touchdown drives late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. It is tough to fault the unit for giving up ten points when facing a short field handed to them by offensive errors. Speaking of the offense, as good as the first half was, the second half was quite the opposite. Some credit for that goes to the Pitt defense which did a much better job containing Williams. The other part was of course turnovers committed by Morris and Logan in key situations.
UNC needs only a win over Old Dominion to become bowl eligible and is still alive to finish 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC. Yes, the loss to Miami really hurts now since UNC would be one win away from the ACC Championship game had they managed one stop against the Hurricanes.