PITTSBURGH – North Carolina took a significant step forward in its charge to the ACC Coastal Division crown with a 26-19 primetime victory over No. 23 Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
Thursday’s win was the kind that has eluded the North Carolina program for so long, for too long. The opportunities, as rare as they have been, to elevate the program into the ACC and national discussions have all too often slipped away, adding yet another year of stomaching the sleeping giant tag that Tar Heel fans have come to loathe.
The most notable example is UNC’s Judgment Day loss to Florida State in 1997, although Mack Brown was more a victim of timing than anything else in trying to overthrow Bobby Bowden at the height of his reign in Tallahassee. Other chances evaporated by the running ability of Georgia Tech’s Joe Burns in 2001, a late Darian Durant sack by Virginia Tech’s Jim Davis in 2004 and by the foot of Maryland kicker Obi Egekeze in a 17-15 loss in 2008.
The Tar Heels refused to add to that storyline in Pittsburgh, instead making big plays early and clutch plays late to keep the Panthers at enough of a distance to prevent the past from becoming relevant.
After exchanging field goals on their opening possessions, Marquise Williams slid away from a sack to connect with Ryan Switzer on a deep post for a 71-yard touchdown. UNC would never give up its lead, growing it to 20-3 at halftime and maintaining a double-digit advantage until 46 ticks on the clock remained.
In a season that’s slowly being defined by an offense and defense on equal footing, UNC maintained control against Pitt with a balanced approach that kept adding points to the scoreboard while making life difficult for quarterback Nate Peterman and wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The Tar Heels averaged 7.7 yards per play offensively, while delivering season-highs in sacks (5) and pass breakups (8) on defense.
Williams made his best plays under pressure, although none more significant than a 3rd-and-12 scramble and 23-yard pass completion to Kendrick Singleton with five minutes to play. With that completion and its accompanying first down, victory became a reality, and with it relevancy in the form of a likely top-25 ranking.
“The thing is, people think we aren’t relevant,” Williams said after the win, UNC’s seventh in a row. “Nobody wants to give us respect. This was our opportunity to come in here and get people’s attention.”
UNC head coach Larry Fedora was reminded during his postgame press conference that his team is now alone in first place in the ACC Coastal Division, although that didn’t seem to surprise him.
“We feel like it’s been the same way since the first conference game we played; that we were in the driver’s seat,” Fedora said. “And that’s the way we’re looking at it the whole time, that we just take care of our business, one week at a time. We don’t look at it like we’re just now getting there; we felt like that from the beginning of the season, and that was our plan.
“But we’ve got more games to play, and we’ve got a really important one coming up, but I think our guys will handle it fine. I don’t think they’ll look at it any differently than we did the first week of the season.”
That next one is No. 22 Duke (6-1, 3-0 ACC), which hosts disheveled Miami on Saturday night. If the Blue Devils win, next weekend will likely mark the first time since 1939 that UNC and Duke have both entered its rivalry game ranked and the first time ever the two programs have played as ranked foes at Kenan Stadium.
More importantly, the winner will have a solid hold on the Coastal Division with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“It’s not like they get any less important going forward,” senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad said. “They’re going to stay important and we’ve just got to keep playing and keep winning.”
That’s what happens when a program wins a game that it has lost for so long.