Three-Point Stance: Miscues cost Tar Heels in Sun Bowl
Two first-half turnovers, both of which led to Stanford field goals, then Mitch Trubisky threw an interception that safety Dallas Lloyd returned for a Cardinal touchdown.
Those mistakes proved costly as North Carolina's rally fell a two-point conversion short in dropping the Sun Bowl 25-23 Friday.
But narrow losses are nothing new to these Tar Heels, who dropped three of their last four games, each by seven points or less.
From Mitch Trubisky's future to Ryan Switzer's history-making career and an impressive performance from the Tar Heels defense, these are the lasting impressions from North Carolina's time in El Paso.
1. Now comes the tough part for Mitch Trubisky
A 97-yard drive ending with Mitch Trubisky hitting Bug Howard for a 2-yard touchdown, and it looked like Florida State and Pitt all over again for the Tar Heels. But after engineering comebacks wins against those ACC opponents, North Carolina couldn't convert the two-point conversion as Trubisky was smothered by Solomon Thomas and the Stanford defense.
It was the kind of drive that shows why Trubisky's time as the helm of North Carolina's defense could be so short. He hit three different receivers -- Austin Proehl and Howard each twice and Switzer once -- and had multiple passes, including one in the end zone to Jordan Cunningham that were dropped.
Trubisky ended 23 of 39 for 280 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and he lost a fumble that was actually caused by the ref as the QB tried to elude a Stanford defender.
Now comes the question that -- despite the CBS announcers debate of how high he should go in this year's NFL draft -- still needs to be answered. Is Trubisky one and done as North Carolina's starting QB?
He's atop many sites' rankings of draft-eligible passers, ahead of fellow underclassmen Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer (both of whom have announced they are leaving school) and is slotted as high as second in via CBS Sports' mock draft.
From that end, why return? But Trubisky could be one of seven returning starters to this Tar Heels offense, which would include running back Elijah Hood, receiver Austin Proehl, and there's also a manageable schedule with Cal, Old Dominion, Notre Dame and Western Carolina out of conference. Also, while the Tar Heels do have to face Louisville, there's no Clemson or Florida State on the regular-season schedule.
As reported during the game's telecast, Trubisky is expected to make his decision in the coming days. Expect Larry Fedora to be patiently awaiting the answer.
Ivan Pierre AguirreIvan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sp
2. Tar Heels defense has familiar trouble, but proves more bend than break
The biggest issue facing North Carolina's defense has been the same for most of the past three seasons: stopping the rush. It was there against Georgia in this year's opener, in which it gave up 289 to Georgia and reached its peak with 374 allowed to Georgia Tech.
The Tar Heels, 113th in that department (235.5) nationally, have kept just one opponent under 100 yards the last two seasons -- 99 by Miami in 2015 -- and entered the Sun Bowl riding a streak of 16 games of 100-plus by opponents. The absence of Christian McCaffrey, didn't stop the Cardinal from extending that run, totaling 135 behind 115 on 22 carries from Bryce Love.
But while that North Carolina D had allowed 28 rushing TDs -- second-most in the ACC -- they kept the Cardinal from a score on the ground with four impressive red-zone stands, including the final one.
On seven plays inside the 18 on Stanford's last scoring drive, they ran, and despite the benefit of a face mask call to get to the 1-yard line, couldn't break through. On four trips inside the 20, the Cardinal were limited to nothing but field goal attempts. That coming from a defense that was 85th in red zone TD percentage (63.2).
After allowing an average of 241 yards and three TDs on the ground in its previous four losses (and with the specter of 645 yards and seven rushing scores vs. Baylor in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl hanging over them) this amounted to an impressive performance from Gene Chizik's defense.
3. Ryan Switzer adds another record in Tar Heels finale
No, he didn't capture the record that he's been chasing for seasons, but Switzer did continue to leave his mark on the annals of North Carolina history in his final game.
He hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Trubisky in the first quarter, giving him 2,841 receiving yards in his career to pass Hakeem Nicks for the school record. He already holds he Tar Heels marks for receptions in a season and career, and of course, ended his career one punt return shy of the NCAA mark of eight.
He made a splash as a freshman, tying an NCAA record with five punts taken back for scores, but this may have been Switzer's strongest season. He went over 1,000 yards receiving or the first time and caught 30 more passes than at any point in his career.
That level of production amid a deep group of receivers speaks volumes to Switzer becoming much more than a return man ... and, of course, it doesn't hurt having your roommate in Trubisky taking control of the offense.