The Pittsburgh defensive lineman rushed North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams with his hand stuck in the quarterback’s facemask as he pulled him down.
Williams, 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage, was bent at the waist from the tug with his face nearly tasting the turf. But he managed to thrust his head up and free of the defender’s grasp.
Standing upright at the 20-yard line, he quickly spotted Ryan Switzer breaking down the middle of the field with three yards on his defender. Williams’ 50-yard toss in the air hit Switzer in stride at the 30-yard line to complete a 71-yard touchdown catch-and-run for a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Now you know why Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora stuck with Williams when he struggled in the first half of the season and there were calls to replace him with backup Mitch Trubisky.
Williams guided North Carolina to a 20-3 halftime lead en route to a 26-19 victory over No. 23-ranked Pittsburgh in an ESPN Thursday night game at Heinz Field. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior from Charlotte Mallard Creek finished with 332 total yards. He had 270 yards passing (14-of-23 with two touchdowns and no interceptions) and ran 52 yards on nine carries.
With North Carolina’s seventh straight win, the Tar Heels are in the ACC Coastal driver’s seat. They improved to 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Coastal. It’s the first time North Carolina has been 4-0 in conference play since 1997 when the Tar Heels went 11-1 and 7-1 under Mack Brown.
Pittsburgh (6-2, 4-1 Coastal), enjoying its first 6-1 start since 2009 under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi, saw its four-game winning streak snapped.
The win over the Panthers was North Carolina’s first over a ranked opponent this year. The Tar Heels face another ranked ACC team next week when they host No. 22 Duke at Kenan Stadium.
The North Carolina-Pitt game was the first ACC Coastal showdown in a three-week round-robin stretch between the three midseason leaders. North Carolina is home Nov. 7 against No. 22 Duke (6-1, 3-0 Coastal). Pitt travels on Nov. 14 to Duke.
The Panthers have to hope Duke can beat North Carolina and then upsets the Blue Devils a week later.
With a win over Duke, North Carolina could suffer an upset loss and still hold the tiebreaker over Pitt and Duke for a berth in the ACC Championship game. The Tar Heels must still get by Miami Nov. 14 at home, Virginia Tech Nov. 21 on the road and N.C. State on the road Nov. 28 in the regular-season finale.
North Carolina may be ready to crack the Top 25 next week. The Tar Heels’ 46 points in last week’s AP writers poll was equal to No. 27. Their 55 points in the USA Today coaches poll equaled No. 28.
Williams has the Tar Heels rolling better than could have been expected after his dismal three-interception performance in a 17-13 loss to South Carolina in a Thursday night game to open the season. Then, wins against a soft remaining non-conference schedule didn’t attract anyone’s national respect.
The big and mobile Williams is having the All-ACC-type season in Chapel Hill that North Carolina State had expected down the road in Raleigh from another big and mobile QB. But the Wolfpack’s Jacoby Brissett is struggling.
Williams os benefitting from protection up front from his offensive line. It has allowed him time to find a cast of big and versatile receivers. The big targets were Quinshad Davis (6-4, 220) and Mack Hollins (6-4, 210). Switzer is only 5-10, 185, but he plays like Wes Welker in his days with the New England Patriots.
Switzer caught five balls for 98 yards and one TD, Hollins two for 81 with one TD and Davis three for 24.
Williams also has been aided by an improved running game. Sophomore running back Elijah Hood finished with 20 carries for 98 yards.
In this era of superfluous stats, ESPN kept flashing that Pitt had not overcome a 17-point deficit since 2004. It’s a meaningless stat since Narduzzi is in his first year at the school and is trying to establish a new culture. The Panthers outscored North Carolina 16-6 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to come all the way back.