CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ryan Switzer called it a "mulligan play," like a do-over in golf. Actually, North Carolina ran the run-pass option three straight times before finally cashing in for a touchdown that officially erased a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and capped one of the most spectacular drives in recent Tar Heels history.
Before the drive started, with UNC trailing by 6 and 3:35 left on the clock, coach Larry Fedora pulled his biggest receiver, 6-5 Bug Howard, aside.
"We're coming to you," Fedora told him, "so you better make a play."
Howard did, but so did virtually the entire offense at one point or another on a 17-play, 63-yard drive that led to UNC's 37-36 victory.
Mitch Trubisky, making just his fourth career start at QB for North Carolina, engineered the drive, chipping away at an exhausted Pittsburgh defense. Three times, he converted fourth-and-long plays to keep the drive alive, twice hitting Switzer for the conversion.
The last came with 55 seconds remaining, as Switzer -- all 5 feet, 10 inches of him -- stretched to grab the ball to give UNC a first down in the red zone. It was Switzer's 16th catch of the game, tying a school record.
"I felt like I was out of my body I was so exhausted," Switzer said, "but I've jumped a 35½ [inch] vertical, so maybe that came in handy."
Two plays later, Trubisky hit Howard for a 13-yard gain to the 4, and the Tar Heels smelled blood in the water. The plan was simple: run-pass option, with a fade to Howard in the end zone the first read.
On first down, Trubisky dropped back and attempted to float the ball to Howard, but it fell incomplete.
"The first one, it came out of his hands wrong a little bit," Howard said. "The second one, he looked at me and said, 'Man, we've got to make a play.'"
But when the Tar Heels lined up for second down, Pitt's safety was on to their plan, cheating over to the outside. Trubisky read the defense and decided to put the ball in running back Elijah Hood's belly instead.
"I saw that corner back off last second, and the safety was playing a little wider than I thought, so I thought we were able to get a run box," Trubisky said. "Elijah almost punched it in."
Hood carried a pile of defenders to the 2-yard line, inching closer to the end zone -- but also to the end of the game.
"I was just thinking he needed to get in the end zone," Fedora said.
Instead, he went down with less than 10 seconds to play, and the UNC offense scrambled to get the next play off.
"Luckily everyone was in the right state of mind to be alert and get lined up again," Trubisky said. "We ran the same option and got the look we wanted."
Howard jokes that those jump balls -- often called a 50-50 ball -- are mislabeled.
"Fifty-fifty balls are my deal," he said. "I make the jump balls 80-20."
That's exactly what happened. Trubisky floated the pass toward the sideline, and the Pitt corner draped himself over Howard, hoping to break up the play. A flag flew in, but Howard was undeterred.
"I was expecting the hold," Howard said. "He'd been holding me all night."
Howard leaped, grabbed the pass, and came down in the end zone as the remaining crowd roared wildly.
"I'm just glad he threw it to Bug because I was just exhausted out there," Switzer said.
The third time was the charm, and Trubisky, who'd completed 10 of 15 throws on the drive, never had a doubt.
"Bug being confident gives me a lot of faith in him that he's going to come down with it," Trubisky said. "I'll give him a chance every time and he just made a great play."