The model for UNC winning games is clear. It's not a great model nor is it for the weak of heart but the "trade points and make sure you get the ball last" method of winning is working for now. As the Heels did against Georgia Tech, UNC answered a late touchdown with one of its own to secure a 40-35 win over Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh.
As has been the case all season, UNC's defense struggled with no one expecting anything different in this game. It was almost assured that Panther running back James Conner would run hog wild all over the Tar Heel defense and that he did to the tune of 220 yards and four touchdowns. Two of those scores(one a 56-yard run) came in the first quarter to put Pitt ahead 14-0. Meanwhile, as UNC is wont to do this season the offense struggled early to produce. UNC punted on its first three possessions with Marquise Williams off the mark and under pressure. At one point Williams was 4-16 passing missing even basic throws while struggling against the Panther pass rush.
The Tar Heels got on the board following the deflection of a Chris Blewitt 44-yard field goal attempt. Williams capped off the subsequent 10 play, 72 yard drive with a 23-yard touchdown scamper to cut the Pitt lead to seven.. Following a Pitt punt and UNC returning the favor, the Panthers made it 21-7 on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Chad Voytik to Tyler Boyd. Following that score, UNC proceeded to score on its next four possessions.
The catalyst for the offensive explosion was Williams. The junior quarterback used his elusiveness to keep plays alive and completed 16 straight passes to turn a 4-16 passing day into 20-32 through three quarters. He ended the game going 23-40 for 276 yards and a touchdown. Williams also used his legs to score three touchdowns and rush for 122 yards. Ryan Switzer tallied UNC's biggest play of the game taking a screen pass 63 yards for a touchdown to draw the Heels within two early in the second half. UNC also got a big day from T.J. Logan. The sophomore running back had a career high 93 yards and one touchdown. Junior WR Quinshad Davis, who had been quiet for most of the season, snagged six passes for 66 yards.
Despite the offense finding itself, the defense still couldn't slow Pitt down and when the Panthers were forced to punt, UNC didn't capitalize. Of the five defensive stops(prior to the game ending one) UNC forced, only two led to Tar Heel points. The last of those, a Pitt punt with 9:30 left in the game, resulted in a three and out with the Heels leading 34-28. A touchdown on that drive could have iced the game but instead Pitt took possession and ran Conner almost exclusively for the bulk of the drive. Conner scored his fourth touchdown of the day with 3:33 left for a 35-34 lead. As was the case nearly a month ago versus Georgia Tech, UNC had plenty of time and the offense to still win the game.
On the ensuing drive, UNC got significant production from Logan, a tight rope catch by Mack Hollins on 3rd and 10 and a Williams run up the middle off a fake handoff on 4th and 2 to keep the Heels alive. Under normal circumstances, such as one where UNC would have a reliable kicker, a drive into the red zone would have been enough to get UNC a decent shot at a game winning field goal. Since UNC has zero reliability in the kicking game, Williams finding Davis on a 23 yard pass play to the one was the next best thing. Logan dove across the goal line on the next play giving UNC the winning margin.
Pittsburgh still had 50 seconds left for a desperation drive and the Tar Heel defense on the other side of the ball. As much maligned as UNC's defense has been all season, the Tar Heels are adept at taking the ball away. This time it was ram Malik Simmons forcing a fumble on a Voytik scramble. Bandit Shakeel Rashad recovered the loose ball and the Heels moved to 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the ACC.
In a season marked by historical awfulness on defense and a litany of frustrating issues, the resilience of this team is unmistakable. This win marks the fourth time this season UNC has faced a double digit deficit and rallied to win the game. It's the third time that deficit was at least two touchdowns. In today's game and against Virgina, UNC fell behind 14-0 but fought back to take the lead and ultimately win the game. What the present version of the Tar Heels lack in execution at times they make up for with an ability to respond once backed into a corner. Marquise Williams is obviously a huge factor in the team's attitude both because of his play and his overall attitude which is seemingly always positive.
Despite the struggles, UNC is sitting at 5-5 and needs just one win in the next two games to reach bowl eligibility. The best bet for that is still NC State on November 29th in Chapel Hill. But first, UNC heads to Duke to see if they can shock the Blue Devils and bring the Victory Bell back to Kenan Stadium.