CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. With 23 seconds left in North Carolina’s matchup with Pittsburgh on Saturday, that was the Tar Heels’ plan of action.
UNC’s offense found itself on the Panthers’ four-yard line and in need of a touchdown. Trailing 36-30, the Tar Heels needed to find a way to get into the end zone.
The plan? Run the same play three times in a row.
That play happened to be a right corner fade to wide receiver Bug Howard packaged with a run-pass option for quarterback Mitch Trubisky. With the Pitt safeties crowding the box, the fade route offered a 1-on-1 matchup, so Trubisky threw to Howard on first down. Incomplete.
On second down, Trubisky thought there was enough of a running lane for Elijah Hood to plow through, so he opted to hand the ball off. Hood was stopped two yards shy of the goal line.
On third down, with the clock ticking away, Trubisky threw again to Howard, who pulled in the catch despite defensive interference for the game winner with two seconds remaining.
Those three plays, which capped off a 17-play touchdown drive, left the game in the players’ hands.
“It was real calm,” Howard said. “We said if the first play doesn’t work, which was the fade ball and it was a little low and didn’t work, we knew the same play was going to be ran. We said for a third play we’re just going to run it again. We just made it happen and our guys won.”
On a final drive that delivered three fourth-down conversions, the most drama took place after Hood was stopped short at the two-yard line with 13 seconds left and the clock running. With almost no time to think, the play call was simple: “Mulligan,” or rather, run the same play that didn’t work the previous two times.
“After the rush was done, it was ‘Mulligan,’ get done, get to the line, get the next play off,” Hood said. “It doesn’t matter; you’ve got time to get a play off.”
For Trubisky, making his fourth career start, even with the clock ticking down, he never lost his composure after Hood’s carry.
“To be honest we were calm, even with that,” Trubisky said. “We had 13 seconds left but we were right on the ball. We practiced that situation plenty of times. We’ve learned from other team’s mistakes. We got it off with some time. It may not have seemed calm, but in our head we had plenty of time to get one or two plays off.”
With the clock at under ten seconds, the Tar Heels got to the line and Howard knew that he’d have another shot to come up with the game-winning catch.
“Mitch looked at me and made a face like, ‘You better make this play,’ and just threw it up to me,” Howard said.
Howard came up with the catch, an impressive left-handed snag with a defender draped on him.
“When the refs arms went up, I just lost it,” Hood said. “How did he even pull that in? The guy was literally tackling him in mid air. Bug made a hell of a catch. That’s probably the best catch I’ve ever seen.”
The real reason for UNC to run three consecutive fade plays? It just comes down to the percentages, according to Howard.
“50/50 balls are my deal, but I make the jump balls 80/20,” Howard said.