It’s easy to understand why some of the 54,500 fans in Kenan Stadium on Saturday left before the end of North Carolina’s matchup versus Pitt.
Mistakes plagued the Tar Heels early, the defense had been struggling to get stops, and with just over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the team was punting while down 36-23.
The situation wasn’t all that different from UNC’s season opener against Georgia, when momentum swung in its opponent’s favor late. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky showed nerves in the Georgia Dome, throwing the ball away on a key fourth down in the Bulldogs’ 33-24 victory.
Trubisky showed no such nerves against the Panthers, standing tall in the face of that 13-point deficit.
The Tar Heel defense forced a three-and-out on the next Pitt drive — a rare occurrence for Larry Fedora’s group on Saturday — and the offense got the ball back with nearly 7:30 to go. Leaning on Trubisky, North Carolina threw the ball seven times on an eight-play drive that resulted in a Bug Howard touchdown catch. The subsequent extra point made it 36-30.
Then, the defense held Pitt to another three-and-out.
UNC was left with 3:35 to drive 63 yards, needing a touchdown. Trubisky faced 4th and 6 before finding Ryan Switzer — his favorite target on the day — for a 15-yard gain. Moments later, the Heels converted on 4th and 6 again when Trubisky hit Austin Proehl for a gain of 13 yards. Three plays later? In a 4th-and-9 situation, Ryan Switzer was there to make the grab just ahead of the first-down marker.
The offense was 4-of-4 on fourth downs in the game and ultimately stared at 1st and goal from the 4-yard line with no timeouts and 23 seconds remaining. Howard wasn’t able to come down with the corner fade on first down. On the second play, running back Elijah Hood plowed ahead for only two yards. Trubisky — who could have panicked, since the clock was running after Hood’s in-bounds carry — didn’t flinch. He threw another corner fade to Howard on third down, and this time, the 6-5 receiver was able to out-leap 6-0 cornerback Ryan Lewis to make a circus catch despite defensive holding.
With two seconds left, the Tar Heels had triumphed. By leading Carolina to a high-wire 37-36 victory, Trubisky had forged the biggest moment of his career.
The signal-caller finished 35-of-46 passing for 453 yards (second-most in a single game in school history) and five touchdowns. Just three weeks after failing to deliver against Georgia, he became the hero in Chapel Hill in a consequential Coastal Division clash.
With back-to-back 400-yard games — he threw for 432 yards against James Madison on Sept. 17 — Trubisky is giving UNC exactly what it needs. While the team’s defense has given up an average of 30 points per game through the first four weeks, the redshirt junior has made up for it by leading a potent passing attack.
Trubisky has been remarkably efficient, posting a completion rate of 74.5 percent while averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt. He also has 10 passing touchdowns (with zero interceptions) and has managed to find the end zone on the ground three times.
Since the Week 1 jitters in Atlanta, Trubisky has become a capable replacement for 2015 starter Marquise Williams, who received second-team All-ACC honors each of the last two years. Trubisky’s next test will come on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that knows it may need to win out to have a shot at the Atlantic Division title.
Three weeks ago, it would have been easy to chalk up that contest as a loss. With the play it’s getting at quarterback now, UNC’s hopes for an upset no longer seem quite as crazy.