CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Mitch Trubisky kept scanning the field, delivering the ball on target with a cool composure for North Carolina — down to when he made the game’s biggest play in the frantic final seconds.
The junior threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard with 2 seconds left to help the Tar Heels rally past Pittsburgh 37-36 on Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for two teams that finished 1-2 atop the Coastal Division last season.
“We had talked about before the game that we had an opportunity to establish the identity of this football team,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “And I can say there’s a lot of grit in this football team for one, a lot of toughness — all the intangibles that we need to be successful.”
Trubisky threw for career highs of 453 yards and five touchdowns for the Tar Heels (3-1, 1-0 ACC). His main target was Ryan Switzer, who tied a program record with 16 catches for 208 yards and a score.
The Tar Heels never led until the final play and trailed by 13 with 6 minutes left. But Trubisky led a 17-play, 63-yard drive that included three fourth-down conversions in a stunning finish, sending UNC’s players running onto the field to celebrate once they stopped Pitt’s final-play kick return.
“Everybody believed, man,” Howard said. “We had some fans leaving and stuff, people was giving up on us after they scored that last touchdown. But the defense had our back, we had their back, we told them if they’d get one more stop, we’re going to make it happen.”
Quadree Henderson ran for 107 yards to for the Panthers (2-2, 0-1), who ran for 281 yards but went three-and-out on their last two drives to give UNC its opening.
“When something like that (comeback) happens, you have to look at yourself first: Did I do everything I needed to do to get us a victory?” Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price said. “I think that answer is no.”
PITTSBURGH: Simply put, the Panthers have to get better against the pass. Dating to last week’s loss at Oklahoma State, Pitt has surrendered 993 yards through the air couldn’t get a stop late — even as coach Pat Narduzzi said he thought the team was “a lot sounder” this week.
“I thought our coaches did a great job putting them in position to make plays today,” Narduzzi said. “It comes down to, ‘Is that going to be a catch at the end?'”
NORTH CAROLINA: Maybe the Tar Heels have a little more toughness than it appeared early. Trubisky has settled into a mistake-free groove, and this could be a springboard for a team looking to repeat last year’s run of 11 straight wins to a division title.
Pittsburgh averaged 5.1 yards per carry even after losing 28 yards on a bad first-quarter snap, with James Conner among four players to rush for TDs. The Panthers held the Tar Heels to 18 yards rushing.
The Tar Heels completed all four of their fourth-down chances, the three on the final drive. Trubisky squeezed one throw through to Switzer on a fourth-and-6 for 15 yards, connected with Austin Proehl on another fourth-and-6 for 13 yards then went back to Switzer on for nine yards on fourth-and-9 with 51 seconds left.
THE FINAL SEQUENCE
The Tar Heels had no timeouts as they got a first-and-goal from Pittsburgh’s 4-yard line with 31 seconds left.
Trubisky couldn’t connect with Howard on first down, then called a run play to Elijah Hood that was stopped in a time-burning pileup at the 2.
As the clock ticked inside of 10 seconds, the Tar Heels lined up quickly for the winning throw.
“They gave us a look we wanted for the fade and Bug made a fantastic catch,” Trubisky said, “but credit to everyone for knowing their job, getting lined up and running it, because the clock was running and that was crucial.”
A section of fans in the UNC student section raised their fists and remained seated in protest during the pregame national anthem. Roughly 100 black and white students wearing black shirts participated, as well as at least two UNC marching-band members who took a knee — one while raising a fist.
Chapel Hill is about 140 miles northeast of Charlotte, where there have been protests this week following a fatal police shooting of a black man.
PITTSBURGH: The Panthers step out of ACC play to host Marshall in the first meeting between the schools.
NORTH CAROLINA: The rotating schedule of cross-division league games did the Tar Heels no favors. They travel to No. 13 Florida State for their first trip to Tallahassee since winning there in 2010.