The question North Carolina faced entering the fourth quarter on Thursday night at Pittsburgh was the same one it faced in its first game of the season, against California, and in its second game, against Louisville, and in its fourth game, against Duke.
The question, as it was then in those games about two months old now, was this: Could the Tar Heels keep the lead they held entering the fourth quarter? Could they, at last, close out a game and make the necessary, tough-minded plays to win?
The answer to the first question came quickly enough: Pitt took its first lead of the second half early in the fourth quarter after a nine-play, 75-yard drive – its second 75-yard touchdown drive of the second half. And the answer to the second, more important question followed, for once, in unpredictable fashion.
UNC, beset so many defeats, broken bones and torn ligaments, celebrated at last on Thursday following its 34-31 victory – a triumph the Tar Heels earned after they lost a fourth-quarter lead, took it back and then held on during the final 6½ minutes. Finally, after six consecutive losses, after going for more than a year between victories against major-conference competition, UNC (2-8, 1-6 ACC) had something to savor.
This game could have ended, in Tar Heels misery, like so many others had this season. UNC once led 14-3 late in the first quarter, and then led 24-17 at halftime, and 27-24 early in the fourth quarter. And yet when the Panthers (4-6, 2-4) took the lead early in the fourth quarter, UNC found itself in perilous position.
It was the kind of position in which the Tar Heels failed again and again earlier in the season. It looked like they might again when their first drive of the fourth quarter ended with the kind of two-play sequence that spoke to their season.
In one moment, UNC’s Roscoe Johnson dropped what would have been an important third-down conversion. In the next, Freeman Jones, who earlier had made field goals of 51 and 48 yards, bounced his third field-goal attempt off the right upright.
The Panthers took over with about 10½ minutes remaining and, given that they’d run for approximately 270 yards by then, it appeared within the realm that they could put together a long drive, and perhaps put the game away. Inexplicably, though, Pitt began passing, instead of running, and UNC’s defense forced a stop.
The Tar Heels’ next possession ended with Nathan Elliott’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, the sophomore receiver who accounted for three touchdowns. For his first, he returned the opening kickoff for a 98-yard touchdown. Later, in the second quarter, he threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Cabrera.
Elliott, making his first college start, completed 20 of his 31 attempts for 235 yards and two touchdown passes. Ratliff-Williams’ final touchdown gave the Tar Heels a three-point lead with six minutes, 18 seconds remaining.
From there, the Tar Heels’ defense forced another stop – which came after the Panthers again decided to emphasize the pass instead of the run – and UNC took possession with about three minutes remaining.
After they converted a second-and-18 with Jordon Brown’s 29-yard run, the Tar Heels simply ran out the clock. They’d been on the other side of so many of these moments this season – an opposing team in the final seconds preparing to line up and kneel and then celebrate a victory. Now it was the Tar Heels’ turn. It’d been a long time coming.