UNC caps remarkable turnaround with Belk Bowl win

Ryan Switzer returned a punt for a touchdown and was named the Belk Bowl MVP.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina capped off a pretty remarkable turnaround from a 1-5 start to this season to finish 7-6 with a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. It means more than just a bowl game win for a young team in head coach Larry Fedora’s second season. It’s something the Tar Heels hope to build on moving forward, because ultimately, they want more. 

1. UNC’s staff improvised and players stepped up on defense

North Carolina entered the Cincinnati game with really one healthy linebacker, facing a Cincinnati team that was 15th in the country in passing offense and could run the ball pretty we’ll too. 

"I was worried," Fedora said. "I knew it was going to be rough against the run because we were going to have one linebacker on the field. Only one of them was healthy. The other one didn’t practice all ten practices. He never made contact with anybody."

And so they moved senior safety Tre Boston to linebacker, teaching him the position over ten practices in the lead-up to the bowl game. 

Boston, to his credit, took the move very well. He was almost like a hybrid linebacker/defensive back, and he had to essentially learn a brand-new defensive playbook in the course of a few weeks. 

The coaching staff had to scheme around its deficiencies, which it did brilliantly. Cincinnati actually out-gained the Tar Heels 349-345, but the Bearcats completed just 16-of-36 passes and UNC had five sacks (four in the first half) and three quarterback hurries. 

"We moved around a little bit more up front, a few more stunts, a couple of blitzes that were a little more exotic than what we had been doing because we were going to be playing with a safety at linebacker for the majority of the game with one linebacker on the field," Fedora said. "I thought the defensive staff did a tremendous job scheming their protections. … We were playing a defense that we had never really played because we didn’t have any linebackers and I thought those safeties did a really nice job."

Senior cornerback Jabari Price is one of the better tacklers on the team, but even he didn’t volunteer to fill that role. 

"All this A-gap, B-gap stuff? I didn’t sign up for that," Price said, laughing. 

Boston was happy to do a little hitting, though. He had always joked around with the coaches about playing linebacker, and when they asked him seriously if he could take on that kind of role, he said absolutely. 

"You’ve just got to get your mind right, know what gaps you’ve got to hit. It wasn’t much of an adjustment to me. Being here four years knowing this system for two, I know pretty much where everybody is on that defense," Boston said. "Coach knew what he was doing. He told me if anybody, he’s going to be put me down there because I usually know what everybody’s doing on the field."

Price wasn’t as modest as Boston was. 

"He had to fill the gaps. He had to cover receivers. He had to do the whole nine," Price said. "So we asked a lot from Tre going into these last two weeks, and he didn’t complain not once. I really commended him on that during the game and after it as well. He really did his part in helping us get this win today."

2. WR Ryan Switzer, the Belk Bowl MVP, once again showed why he was one of the most electrifying freshmen in the country this year.

Belk Bowl

As he stood next to his head coach in the postgame press conference, noticeably shorter than him, Switzer — listed at 5-foot-8, which is generous — stood with his hands behind his back, waiting for someone to ask him a question.

He waited for eight minutes.

That’s not new to him, though. He has been overlooked his whole life as the short guy, the one who really can’t be all that fast. Well, he is that fast. If opponents think otherwise, they’ll find out the hard way in a hurry.

"I knew I had it in me ever since I started playing football. Everyone counts the little guy out, everyone counts the small guy out but I always believed in myself," Switzer said. "I came to North Carolina because I had a coaching staff that believed in me as a person and a player."

The staff might have believed in him, but he was still third on the depth chart at the punt return spot coming out of training camp, which annoyed him. 

"I kind of got mad because when I was getting recruited, they told me that I was going to start at punt return or one or the other. So I kind of took that as just to work my way up," Switzer said. "Thankfully Coach Fedora and the staff trusted me enough to put me back there. Like he said, without those ten guys in front of me (blocking), I don’t go anywhere. I’m very thankful that I’m able to do this right now."

He is now the ACC record-holder for single-season punt returns for a touchdown (five), which also ties an NCAA record. And that’s not even counting the number of them that were called back for penalty, obviously. Including one against Cincinnati. 

But he finished his 13th game of his first season with three punt returns for 83 yards (including an 86-yarder for a touchdown) and three catches for 22 yards. He also ran the ball once for eight yards. 

Punt return is where he excels, though. And once he gets going without a defender in sight, he’s pretty much gone. Opponents have to pray that UNC is flagged for a block in the back, which frankly happened far too often this season. 

Still, though, those punt return unit guys — the other ten, as it were — were a big reason Switzer had the success he did. And they loved watching him run this year. 

"Honestly, that was the last 6-7 games when he returned five — to get the confidence to do that, I think Switz really believed in our punt return team. We always knew we were good, even last year with (Giovani Bernard)," Boston said. "We just tried to tell Switz just catch the ball, let’s just go. We’ll do the rest for you."

And having a weapon like that changes the way other teams punt. Cincinnati struggled in punt coverage all year anyway, but they tried a number of different strategies to avoid Switzer that didn’t really work or if they did work, it changed the game in the Tar Heels’ favor. 

"(Cincinnati) rugby-punted first and tried to kick away from him. That’s the first time we’ve ever shown two returners back, so I’m sure that caught them a little bit off guard," Fedora said. "They were going to be short in their coverage if they kicked it back over to T.J. (Logan) because they only had one guy back over there, so that was a question. They kept the quarterback out there with their punt team one time, but we still had Switzer back so they called timeout. They were in a bind."

3. From 1-5 to 7-6.

North Carolina’s season-opening loss at South Carolina was hardly a surprise. Neither was its win over Middle Tennessee State the next week. Heck, even its loss at Georgia Tech in its third game wasn’t all that surprising. But the 55-31 home loss to East Carolina was the low point of the season. It would take two more competitive losses (one at Virginia Tech, one at Miami) before the Tar Heels found themselves staring at a 1-5 record and, in all likelihood, no bowl game.

The heartbreaking loss to Miami felt like a soul-crusher for the Tar Heels. Maybe that, ultimately, would be the nail in the coffin with Heisman Trophy-finalist Andre Williams coming to town the next week.

But it wasn’t. UNC would win six of its final seven games of the season, the only loss coming to No. 22 Duke (by two points).

When they were at the 1-5 crossroads, they basically had two choices — fight harder, claw their way out of the hole or give in. They chose to fight. 

"We’re standing here because of our coaching staff and our senior leadership. Those two groups together, man, they didn’t let us hang our heads. They didn’t let one person step in the facility building who wasn’t ready to work," Switzer said.

"I never played on a team that’s done this before. I never played on a team that didn’t let guys quit and tank it, and I think that’s a credit to our seniors and that’s why they’re going out with a win today."

Since 2006, only five other teams have started a season 1-5 and still reached a bowl game and just one of those teams is from a BCS conference (Rutgers). So what UNC did isn’t all that easy. 

Fedora had never had a losing season before as a head coach, and he was certainly staring at the very real possibility of that this year. He and his staff, along with the players, got everyone back on the same page. They certainly deserve a lot of credit for that, but Fedora just wants to make sure he can learn from what happened to get his team in the 1-5 hole to begin with. 

"That’s what I’ll take from this season is going from 1-5 to where we did and everything that happened along the way. I take a lot of notes and I keep notes, and I go back and look at those notes and see what was going on that day and what happened, what we addressed throughout the season. I will go back and study all those because I try to learn from every situation that we’re in," Fedora said. 

"I can’t tell you how proud I am of the staff and the team for what they were able to accomplish when you’re 1-5. You don’t really understand the feelings of those guys when everybody on the outside is telling them what’s wrong and why they can’t be successful and what’s happening with them. They just did a great job of focusing on what the coaches were telling them and kept believing."

4. There is plenty of young talent in Chapel Hill and the future is seemingly bright.

Does that mean that UNC is, or should be, the Coastal Division favorite going into next season? Probably not, at least not necessarily. But what it means is that for the first time in seemingly ages, UNC will be headed into next season without the dark cloud of the NCAA academic scandal surrounding the program and/or a bowl game loss. 

Most of UNC’s touchdowns during its win streak were scored by freshmen and sophomores, and all of UNC’s young talent on both sides of the ball (and on special teams) developed nicely as the season went on. 

That, combined with a good feeling after a bowl win, means optimism and good feelings in Chapel Hill. 

"Winning’s always very important, believe me. So finishing 7-6 was critical," Fedora said. "Not only that, but for this football team, starting 1-5 and nobody thought we’d be sitting here today. At least nobody outside of our locker room. And those kids just kept believing and they kept playing hard and they got it done."

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams filled in very nicely for Bryn Renner when he went down with injury late in the season. He’s far from a lock to have the job next season with some talented younger quarterbacks waiting in the wings, but he’s feeling as good as every other young player on the team right now. As he should. 

Williams finished 19-of-33 for 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The last number was perhaps the most important. And he had 46 yards rushing on hie carries. 

"I’m so confident. (Next year is) going to be unbelievable," Williams said. "We’ve got a bright future, man. People don’t know. You might need to watch out for us next year because a lot of guys are hungry."

Switzer, mature beyond his years and perhaps the most dynamic and talented piece of UNC’s young core, put it as simply and as bluntly as he could — mid-season turnarounds aren’t good enough anymore. Eight-win seasons aren’t good enough anymore. Bowl games aren’t good enough anymore.

The Tar Heels want more.

"It just means that the expectations are even higher. We’ve got to come into the offseason with an attitude ready to work," Switzer said. "(A) 7-6 (record) is great, especially from where we were at the beginning of the season, but it’s not where we want to be as a program. 

"We’re tired of 7 or 8 wins, so it’s our job to prepare ourselves accordingly and make sure that we’re ready for (2014)."