PITTSBURGH (AP) — His team’s momentum gone and time winding down, North Carolina freshman punt returner Ryan Switzer saw the ball drift toward him and had just a single thought running through his mind.
“I wasn’t going to fair catch that one,” Switzer said.
Switzer hauled in the kick from Pittsburgh’s Matt Yakolic, darted left down the sideline then completely reversed field on his way to a 61-yard touchdown that lifted the streaking Tar Heels to a 34-27 win over the enigmatic Panthers.
The score was Switzer’s second of the game and third in the last two weeks, both school records.
“When I saw him go up the sideline, I was like, ‘He’s gone,’” North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams said. “I know what he can do. I’ve been on him all year. I told him, ‘When your time comes, just keep performing.”
North Carolina (5-5, 4-3 ACC) needed Switzer to come through after blowing a 24-point second-half lead. The Tar Heels appeared to be in full control when Thomas Moore’s second field goal made it 27-3 with 12:51 to play in the third quarter.
It disappeared over the next 20 minutes, as Pitt quarterback Tom Savage shook off a relentless North Carolina pass rush to lead a frantic rally. The Panthers tied it at 27 on James Conner’s 2-yard plunge with 8:52 to play. Pitt mounted one last drive after Switzer’s second score, but Conner was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the North Carolina 26 with 1:10 to go and the Tar Heels escaped with their fourth straight victory after a 1-5 start.
“We talk about adversity all the time and what you have to do with it,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “They didn’t blink and kept believing in each other.”
Williams ran for two touchdowns to overcome a shaky day passing and the Tar Heels sacked Savage seven times, including 3½ by defensive end Kareem Martin.
“He’s a senior that understands we are running out of opportunities and he’s making the most out of every one of them,” Fedora said of Martin.
Savage completed 23 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers (5-5, 2-4), both scores and more of the yards coming after he left the game briefly late in the second quarter with a left knee injury.
He returned to start the second half and was promptly sacked and fumbled on his first pass attempt. The Tar Heels recovered and Moore’s second field goal seemed to have North Carolina firmly in control.
Instead, the Panthers flirted with one of the greatest comebacks in program history.
“I appreciate that he’s a warrior,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “I appreciate what he does. I love the way he plays. He’s pretty even keeled and obviously competitive.”
So, it turns out, are the Tar Heels, who have emerged from the ashes of a brutal first half of the season to move within a game of becoming bowl eligible.
North Carolina came in surging, winning its previous three games by an average of 21 points. The Tar Heels seemed to be well on their way to another one, taking advantage of choppy play by the Panthers, who were hoping to avoid a letdown after rallying to beat Notre Dame last weekend.
Chryst allowed he wasn’t sure how his team would respond after the biggest victory of his two-year tenure and was treated to another uneven performance in a season full of them.
The Panthers marched 64 yards on the opening drive for a field goal and was deep in North Carolina territory on its second drive when Savage scrambled to his left and had the ball knocked out of his hand by Martin. Travis Hughes recovered and in an instant Pitt’s momentum vanished.
North Carolina ripped off the game’s next 27 points.
Williams was erratic when dropping back to throw, completing just 15 of 27 passes for 173 yards. He was dynamic, however, when tucking the ball under his right arm. He ran for 79 yards, including touchdown runs of 16 and 10 yards.
For a long stretch, the Panthers had no answer as North Carolina’s rejuvenated defense, which was so abysmal earlier in the season associate head coach Vic Koennig said he was “disenchanted” by his group’s play, seemed to put a body on Savage after every snap.
During one five-possession span in the second and third quarters, Savage endured six sacks, avoided another by intentionally grounding the ball by switching the ball to his left (non-throwing) hand and fell in a heap clutching his knee at the end of a lengthy scramble.
Still, he hung around and put the Panthers in position to earn their sixth victory and become bowl eligible for the sixth straight season. That goal will have to wait until next week at the earliest thanks to Switzer.