I’d never felt such tension in Kenan Stadium as I did on that day. Never. It was early in the year and hopes were high—the Heels were stacked offensively, and at 2-1 with a talented Pitt team coming into town, this felt like the type of game that could define what kind of season Carolina could have.
Mitch Trubisky had a field day against a lackluster Panthers secondary, throwing for 453 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions; however, this rendered the Heels excruciatingly one dimensional for the entire game. Carolina finished with just 13 total yards rushing. Normally, you get your butt kicked if you rush for 13 yards in one game. That was the case until midway through the fourth quarter.
Pitt was up, 36-23, with UNC facing a fourth down with just under six minutes to go. According to ESPN, this gave the Panthers a 98.1% chance to win.
The Heels converted, then scored on a short touchdown pass to Austin Proehl to make it 36-30. The UNC defense forced a crucial three-and-out after being punched in the mouth by Pitt’s ground attack all afternoon. This was when we started to believe. After Ryan Switzer took a fair catch at the UNC 37 with 3:18 to go, the murmuring began. Feet were tapped. Prayers were sent up.
63 yards in 3:18. A touchdown plus the extra point takes the lead. A turnover essentially ends the game. If anyone could pull this off, it was Mitch Trubisky.
(I added time stamps to these videos. Just click it then watch the play.)
The first snap of the drive was a simple crossing route for a five yard gain. With the ground game just not there, this served the same purpose: move the ball forward and get some momentum going.
Trubisky threw an incompletion the next play, then offensive lineman Bentley Spain was charged with an illegal block in the back to make it 3rd and 16.
Trubisky zinged in a pass to Proehl for a nine yard gain to turn a 4th and 16 into a 4th and 7. In hindsight, this was a play of immeasurable importance—without it, the Heels would’ve been severely handicapped in their play calling on fourth down.
This was when it started getting good. It got loud in Kenan. Many of us were on the verge of myocardial infarction (myself included). And all of us, at the same time, were expecting the inevitable letdown that we had seen so much from Carolina football in the past. It was unavoidable, right? It had to happen.
Ryan Switzer, who finished the game with 16 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown, streaked down the center of the field for a sliding first down grab. Pitt was ready for this and Trubisky still threw it between two defenders, right into Switzer’s sure hands. The margin of error on this throw was zero. The Heels were alive.
However, the next series took the air out of the stadium. Switzer caught a measly four yard gain, then Trubisky threw two incompletions. All of the sudden, it was fourth freakin’ down again with the game on the line. There hadn’t even been enough time to fully process the previous conversion yet.
For all the credit Switzer got for this game, Austin Proehl sure as heck didn’t shy away from the challenge, either. In an absolute exhibition of receiver fundamentals, Proehl ran a marvelous comeback route, planting his foot and shedding his helpless defender with ease. Trubisky tossed him a dime and Proehl made sure to drag those feet before falling out of bounds at the Pitt 27. UNC was still alive and now well within striking distance.
Trubisky took a terrible sack on the next play and the emotional rollercoaster sped on. With Pitt wisely playing cover-3, all Trubisky could do was dump it off for mediocre gains. The Heels got it back to 4th and 9 with a minute left. It was their third 4th down of the drive. Kenan Stadium felt like it was on the verge of exploding.
Sure enough, Kenan exploded, the crowd stuck in between exuberance and awe. Incredible, isn’t it? Full extension, running on fumes, game on the line, and Switzer made the catch. I’d never seen anything like it. We were all witnesses.
After an incomplete pass, the Heels had it in the red zone with under 40 seconds left. The electricity coursing through the stadium was almost painful. Was this really going to happen?
Aw jeez, this was really going to happen. Bug Howard took the dump off pass and powered his way down the four yard line. For a second there, it looked like Howard might break the tackle and have an opportunity to dive into the end zone. But the Pitt defender made a good play and UNC, with no timeouts left, scampered back to the line.
At this point, the sun was setting, casting all of Chapel Hill in burnt orange light. Urgency was in the air. The murmurs had grown into cries and wails. Some fans had their hands cupped over their faces. Some were kneeled in prayer. Some couldn’t watch, eyes closed. As the two teams met at the line, it had the feeling of two dueling cowboys meeting in the city square at sunset. Now we just awaited the gunshots.
Personally, I felt good, at least as good as one can feel in that situation. Pitt had a vastly undersized secondary. Howard, at 6’4, was matched up against Pitt cornerback Ryan Lewis, at 6’0. Lewis looked like, well, a bug, compared to Howard. This close to the end zone, he was too small to guard him and everyone knew it.
AND THEN TRUBISKY FREAKING HANDED IT OFF.
Fedora caught a lot of heat for this play, and would’ve caught exponentially more if UNC had lost, but this was all on Trubisky. He had the option to either hand it off or throw the end zone fade. For some inexplicable reason, he chose to hand it off—keep in mind that Elijah Hood ran 11 times for 25 yards this game, and the inside handoff especially had been utterly futile all afternoon.
Time ticked away as the Tar Heels scampered back to the line. I thought they would run out of time, and that would be it. All this drama would result in yet another anticlimactic loss and yet another long, silent car ride back home.
But not today.
UNC got back to the line and ran the same option play, except this time Trubisky arced an end zone fade to Bug Howard. Lewis was already draped over him before Trubisky had even released the ball. But Howard, like the rest of UNC on that afternoon, would not be denied. With Lewis interfering, he turned around, got position, leaped, and came down with a one-handed touchdown grab. Two seconds left. Nick Weiler nailed the extra point to take the lead. Pitt gave a solid return on the ensuing kickoff, but they were stopped well short of the goal line.
Few times has Kenan Stadium been louder than after Howard’s catch. I took a real breath for the first time in three minutes. It was beyond words. A 13-point fourth quarter comeback. Three 4th down conversions in one drive. A one-handed, game-winning touchdown catch. There was only one word to describe the collective effort given by Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Switzer, Austin Proehl, and Bug Howard on that final drive: Heroic.