Freeman Jones is used to contributing to the North Carolina football team's offensive effort, but usually with his feet.
In the third quarter of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh (2-2, 1-1 ACC), the kicker slid to the turf at the Panthers 28-yard line with the ball in his hands. He'd found another way to chip in.
After UNC's (1-2, 1-0 ACC) go-ahead touchdown midway through the quarter — a 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dyami Brown to take a 35-28 lead — Jones came out to kick the ball off to Pitt. His kick was caught and taken up field by wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, but cornerback Tre Shaw punched the ball from Ffrench’s hands as he made the tackle.
“We talk about how my job after the ball is gone is just sort of to get down the field and be right there behind the play if the guy pops out or the ball pops out,” Jones said. “It took a great bounce, came right to me and I just made sure I didn’t drop it.”
The Tar Heel sideline erupted in celebration at Jones’ recovery, so much so that they were assessed a personal foul, which pushed them back to the 43-yard line. Even the penalty couldn’t put a damper on UNC’s energy, as it scored on its third straight drive of the quarter, jolting the lead to 10 points.
Fittingly, Jones booted the 37-yard field goal to complete the drive.
A few minutes before, the energy on the Tar Heel sideline seemed like it had faded away, as it had a few too many times in the past year.
UNC had gone three-and-out on back-to-back drives to end the first half, and the defense showed no signs of life as Pitt marched ahead to a 28-21 lead heading into the intermission. North Carolina came out flat and settled for a third consecutive three-and-out to start the second half, and was facing a third-and-six from its own 48-yard line on the team's second possession.
Running back Michael Carter had talked to his teammates at halftime, telling them that they needed to toughen up and finish their drives.
“Coming out of halftime we talked about finishing,” Carter said. “It’s a lot of people out there, a lot of players, they wanna (say), ‘I’m a dog.’ But dogs bite. Not everybody is a dog … I told them, everybody wanna be a dog but not everybody wanna bite. So we gotta finish, we gotta bite.”
Now, an offsides penalty was called on the Panthers, setting up a third-and-one and giving the Tar Heels a shot at extending the drive.
“That might have been one of the biggest plays of the game, getting them to jump offsides,” quarterback Nathan Elliott said. “Something just as simple as that.”
Running back Antonio Williams, who rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, converted for the first down on the next play. Two passes to wide receiver Dazz Newsome, who finished with six receptions for 110 yards, put UNC in the red zone and running back Jordon Brown carried the ball in the end zone two plays later to knot the score at 28.
On the next drive, a sack from linebacker Cole Holcomb forced Pitt to punt and a short kick gave the Tar Heels excellent field position. Dyami Brown, a true first-year, shook his defender, and Elliott, who had his first career 300-yard passing game, found him for a 19-yard pass and Brown's first collegiate touchdown.
UNC finished its third quarter with the Jones field goal, and held off a Pitt rally in the fourth quarter to pick up its first win of the season. It was also North Carolina's first victory at home over an FBS team since Nov. 5, 2016 in a game against Georgia Tech.
After coming up short in a comeback bid against Cal in the season opener, and stumbling in the second half against ECU, UNC had shown an inability to finish. But in front of a home crowd in the Tar Heels' first conference and home game of the season, they finally found their bite.
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