If for some reason you had been on a desert island and had not seen any of UNC's football season to this point, you could have turned on the Pitt game and seen most of the previous nine games encapsulated in one afternoon. From the second half of the season you had offensive diversity, rock-solid defense, and very good special teams play as Carolina rushed out to a 24-3 lead. Then in the second half, the team from the first part of the season showed up. Poor tackling, being torched through the air, turnovers, bad decision-making, improper substitutions and blown time outs, and many of the things that got UNC off to a 1-5 start allowed the Panthers to crawl back into the game.
Then, in a scene eerily familiar to the Miami game, UNC punted and pinned Pitt inside their own 10 with about six minutes left and the score tied at 27. But instead of driving down the field for the game-winning score, Carolina held Pitt to a three-and-out and Ryan Switzer fielded the kick and returned it 62 yards for the clinching touchdown, his second punt return TD of the day. And when the Panthers made one last push to try to tie the score, the UNC defense stiffened on a 4th and 1 just outside the red zone, allowing the Heels to escape with a victory.
In other words, this was the kind of stand that Carolina wasn't getting in the first half of the year, and the team that couldn't catch a break made something happen. The team that was 1-5 and one of the country's biggest disappointments is now 5-5 and needs only to beat Old Dominion in Kenan this Saturday to make it back to a bowl. In doing so, UNC beat a pretty good Pitt team on the road, which is something else it wasn't doing in September and early October.
With that in mind, here is this week's GBU Report:
Ryan Switzer: The freshman sensation made good only a couple of hours from his hometown in West Virginia with not one, but two punts returned for touchdowns. Prior to Saturday, the guys who had returned two punts for touchdowns in a season were Bosley Allen, Gio Bernard, and Charlie Justice. That's it. That was the list. Now Switzer is all alone in the UNC record books with three punt return TDs, including these two. And to think what Switzer would have done without a couple of returns called back for penalty earlier in the season?
Kareem Martin: The senior defensive lineman has continued his assault on the back half of the season with a career day. Martin had 8 tackles, including 3 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles (recovering one), and two QB hurries.
Tommy Hibbard: UNC's junior punter continues to show why he is one of the best in the ACC. He punted five times for a 43.2 yard average, and three of his punts were inside the 20; two of those were inside the 10. In addition, none of his five punts were returned. He also showed some nifty hands work, reeling in a couple of wayward snaps (UNC is on its 3rd-team long snapper due to injury) and avoiding special teams catastrophe.
Sack attack: UNC got to Pitt QB Tom Savage seven times. That's impressive under any circumstances.
Penalties: Pitt and UNC are the two most-penalized teams in the ACC, and it showed on Saturday. Although UNC did follow up last week's season-high in penalties with only seven versus the Panthers, it was the usual litany of holds, defensive penalties, and the new ACC favorite, illegal formation. Five of the seven flags came in the 4th quarter when the Tar Heels were seemingly in full-on collapse mode.
Second-half defense: After Pitt's first possession of the second half, where Carolina forced a fumble and kicked a field goal to go up 27-3, the Tar Heel defense appeared as if it was trying to get ahead of the traffic leaving Heinz Field. From that point on, Pitt racked up 227 yards of total offense, most of it through the air, and cranked out 11 first downs on the way to putting up 24 points. Only the last two possessions - the 3-and-out leading to Switzer's return, and the 4th down stop - kept this from being in the ugly section.
Second half offense: From the time Marquise Williams scored with 5:15 in the second quarter to put UNC up 17-3, the offense only managed 92 yards, 3 points, and was 0-5 on 3rd down conversions. Fortunately Switzer saved Carolina with the two return touchdowns. The Heels only crossed mid-field once in the second half, only to have that drive snuffed by a sack and fumble, ending in a Hibbard punt.
While the last 28 minutes were no doubt far from picture-perfect, this was the kind of game this team was losing in the first part of the season. This week they were just good enough to win and as a result just have to notch one more win to make it to the post-season. There will be no room for error, though, as Old Dominion comes to Chapel Hill
off a bye week and already having won 7 8 games, and after that is the Mayan favorite Duke Blue Devils, who very well could be looking at needing a win in Chapel Hill to secure a spot in the ACC Championship Game. [CORRECTION: ODU did not have a bye week. UNC-Charlotte pulled out of the game that had been scheduled for last Saturday in July and the Monarchs filled in the game with Campbell. ODU won 42-14 and is now 8-3 on the season. I was operating from a schedule that did not have the replacement game. Carry on.] What a wild, wacky season it has been.