EL PASO, Texas – As Mitch Trubisky stepped to the line for North Carolina’s potential game-tying two-point conversion, it seemed as though fate was on the Tar Heels’ side. They were recreating their magical rallies against Pittsburgh and Florida State, complete with a 97-yard scoring drive and incredible individual efforts.
And then there was Stanford All-America defensive end Solomon Thomas, slicing untouched through the right side of UNC’s offensive line, followed by an avalanche of Cardinal defenders. The sack, along with a recovered onside kick, secured Stanford’s 25-23 victory and ended UNC’s season with three straight losses to FBS opponents.
UNC’s best two offensive drives were its first and its last, and there were plenty of struggles, inconsistencies and miscues in between. The Tar Heels finished with 398 total yards of offense on a 5.2 yards-per-play clip, while also committing three turnovers.
“It wasn’t that they were doing anything that we didn’t prepare for," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said in his postgame press conference. "You’ve got to block them, and finish blocks, and break tackles, and you’ve got to make plays when you have the opportunity and we just didn’t do that enough. We didn’t do it consistently enough.”
UNC finished the season with a 1-5 record in games in which it scored 27 points or less.
Defense Makes Amends
A year ago, UNC’s defense was embarrassed by a Baylor offense that churned out a bowl-record 645 rushing yards. Despite missing star running back Christian McCaffrey, Stanford intended to test the Tar Heels’ ability to stop the run in El Paso. This bowl game, however, Gene Chizik and his players had an answer, holding the Cardinal to 285 total yards and 131 rushing yards.
UNC limited Stanford to 59 yards on 22 carries (2.7 yards per rush) in the first half, and more importantly, held its opponent to three points off turnovers on a pair of drives that started inside the red zone.
“It wasn’t scheme," Fedora said. "It was their will to be physical on each and every snap. They knew they were going to get blocked, but it was how long are they going to stay blocked. They did a tremendous job of fighting off blocks, ripping off blocks, and making tackles.”
Chizik’s countered Stanford’s jumbo packages, complete with two tight ends and a sixth offensive lineman, with a defensive front stocked with three defensive tackles, two defensive ends and four linebackers.
Naz Jones closed out his UNC career with seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. His biggest hit came late in the first quarter when he knocked Stanford starting quarterback Keller Chryst down and out of the game on a scramble. Chryst’s replacement, former starter Ryan Burns, struggled against the Tar Heel defense, guiding the Cardinal to 73 yards of offense on his first seven possessions.
Lloyd Plays the Part of Trubisky’s Kryptonite
Early in the second quarter, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky locked onto roommate Ryan Switzer on a crossing route over the middle. What the junior quarterback didn’t see was Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd, who stepped in front of the pass and returned the interception 45 yards.
Lloyd was in the right spot later in the quarter when the umpire bumped into Trubisky on a scramble and dislodged the ball. The Stanford senior was credited with the forced fumble.
And then again in the opening moments of the fourth quarter, Trubisky found T.J. Logan running free out of the backfield on a swing route, but Lloyd took the proper angle for the 19-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I expect to make the good plays, but I’ve got to take away those bad plays that I had,” Trubisky said. “I’ve got to take care of the football, and that’s on me. I feel like I let my guys down.”
Trubisky, who will make his NFL decision in the coming weeks, completed 23 of his 39 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Sheldon's Gem of a Season
Aussie punter Tom Sheldon was an unknown commodity entering the season and has since delivered one of the top punting performances in UNC history. The 28-year-old freshman averaged 45.0 yards on four punts against Stanford. The Cardinal returned one punt for a four-yard loss. Opponents returned nine of Sheldon's 50 punts for a combined total of two yards in 2016.
As a result, UNC leads the nation in punt return defense.
Switzer Secures Receiving Record
While Ryan Switzer (5 catches, 85 yards, TD) fell one short of tying the NCAA all-time record for punt returns for touchdowns (8), the senior wide receiver set the school record for career receiving yards with his 19-yard touchdown pass and moved into a tie with Octavus Barnes (1994-97) for fourth place in career touchdown receptions.
The two-time All-America punt returner finished his career with 244 receptions for 2,907 receiving yards. He caught 96 passes for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns in 2016.
For a high school running back that struggled early in his career at wide receiver, these types of accomplishments highlight work ethic and dedication to his craft.
“Coming in my freshman year, it was a nightmare learning the offensive position and learning the nuances of being a wide receiver and what it takes to play wide receiver at the collegiate level,” Switzer said. “So to say that I accomplished all that… It wasn’t a single person effort, I can tell you that. Coach Fedora and [wide receivers] coach [Gunter] Brewer could have easily thrown me aside and allowed me to develop, but they continued to stay on me.”
Switzer currently leads the country with 84 receptions against Power 5 opponents. He caught passes in 51 of the 53 games in which he played during his Tar Heel career.