Special teams magic lifts Tar Heels past Bearcats
North Carolina needed something extraordinary to complete its improvement from a 1-5 start and finish with a winning record.
The Tar Heels received it at the Belk Bowl Saturday from their special teams units, especially Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan.
The freshmen return men each scored touchdowns — Logan on a first-quarter kickoff, Switzer on a third-quarter punt — as UNC beat Cincinnati 39-17.
The big plays delivered the Tar Heels (7-6) a winning record after they had lost five of their first six games this season.
Named the Belk Bowl Most Valuable Player, Switzer tied an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record with his punt return prowess. He returned five punts for touchdowns this season and all five came in UNC’s final five games as it turned the season around.
Switzer had one against Virginia on Nov. 9, two against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 and one against Old Dominion on Nov. 23 before his 86-yard return for a touchdown on Saturday.
“It’s unbelievable how far we came since the first half of the season when we didn’t get nothing on special teams,” UNC quarterback Marquise Williams said. “Now you don’t want to kick it to nobody. T.J. Logan. Ryan Switzer. Either one of those guys, you don’t want to kick it to them because you don’t know what they are going to do. It’s been big for us. We are thankful to have those guys on the team and that they keep performing like they are.”
Logan helped the Tar Heels take control of the game early on Saturday. After Kareem Martin recorded a safety to put UNC up 9-0, Cincinnati’s free kick went to Logan at the UNC 28.
He caught the ball near the left sideline before cutting back up the middle to find a running lane that lead all the way to the end zone for a 16-0 UNC lead.
Once the safety was recorded, the Tar Heels knew they had a chance to seize the game. Logan took advantage.
“That was definitely what Coach (Larry) Fedora was yelling in the whole kick return’s ears,” Logan said. “Finish. When you have momentum you want to keep going with that.”
UNC lead 23-3 at halftime and Switzer’s record-tying punt return with 10:41 left in the third quarter was a dagger to Cincinnati’s comeback hopes.
Switzer fielded the high punt at his own 14 after yelling a signal to his teammates that made everyone think he’d opt for a fair catch. Since he didn’t raise his hand and indicate a fair catch, he was able to legally return it.
“When I caught it, I had a seam,” Switzer said.
He added that former Jordan High School player T.J. Thorpe made a key block that opened up the play.
Once Switzer got started, no Bearcat player could catch him as he sprinted to the end zone for a 29-3 UNC lead.
“There was just grass in front of me. Our guys sealed everyone off. All I had to do was make the punter miss and run.”
Even though the play set up for a safe fair catch, Switzer said he couldn’t allow the chance to pass him up.
“I was getting a little frustrated,” Switzer said. “I wasn’t getting many opportunities. I didn’t touch the ball a lot. So I wasn’t going to let an opportunity slip away.”
Though only having played one year, Switzer now owns the career punt return touchdown mark, passing Johnny Branch (1929-31) and Charlie Justice (1946-49) who each had four punt returns for scores.
Switzer’s five touchdowns came on only 24 punt returns. He leads the nation with a per-return average of 20.9 yards. Auburn’s Chris Davis, at 20.1 yards, will have a chance to pass him in the BCS National Championship game.
As for the game, Switzer and Logan’s touchdowns turned the game one-sided even though Cincinnati played UNC tough otherwise. The Bearcats actually had more yards from scrimmage, gaining 349 to UNC’s 345.
“Special teams, I thought we played well,” Switzer said. “T.J. Logan gave us a spark. I was able to return one. Anytime you can get a score on offense, defense and special teams it’s a big momentum swing.”