NOTE: This article originally appeared in the December 17 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine.
Ryan Switzer changed the game. With two punt return touchdowns at Heinz Field back in November, the freshman spurred the Tar Heels to a win over Pittsburgh and helped secure Carolina’s bid to the Belk Bowl on December 28th. In looking at the stats ahead of the Tar Heels’ matchup with Cincinnati, it’s apparent that Switzer could change that game, too.
Carolina’s 6-6 record couldn’t have happened without good special teams play. The Pittsburgh game, clearly, was won on special teams. In the win in Raleigh, it was the punt coverage unit that snuffed out a fake attempt to give the offense great field position. Special teams play also bit the Tar Heels at times: Miami blocked a field goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown, and Duke’s DeVon Edwards returned a kicked off for a score in the regular season finale. So special teams played no small part in determining the course of the Tar Heels’ season. You can bet that Larry Fedora and his staff won’t overlook that aspect of the game in their preparation for the Belk Bowl. The good news is the Tar Heels appear to have an edge over the Bearcats on special teams.
Thanks to Switzer, Carolina leads the nation with 17 yards per punt return. That’s nearly two first downs the offense doesn’t have to gain from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Cincinnati ranks 113th on punt defense, allowing nearly 13 yards per return. Switzer has gotten tremendous blocking throughout the season and the players on that unit could be difference-makers in Charlotte. Don’t be surprised if Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville tries to minimize Switzer’s chances. The Bearcats have been known to pooch punt with quarterback Brendon Kay. Carolina punter Tommy Hibbard (42.9 average) and Cincinnati’s John Lloyd (43.8) have similar averages, so the coverage units will be key. When the Tar Heels kick, they’re among the nation’s best on punt coverage, allowing just 3.18 yards per return on average. The Bearcats lack a game-changing returner. Receivers Anthony McClung and Shaq Washington have split those duties, averaging 5.86 yards per return.
The other kicking game favors the Tar Heels as well. Cincinnati has struggled with place kicking, as junior Tony Miliano is just 6-15 on the season and made just three of seven attempts in the final three games of the Bearcats’ season. Carolina’s Thomas Moore is 13-17 on the year. Kickers may not be relied upon often on the 28th, as both teams are hesitant to settle for field goals. Like the Tar Heels, Cincinnati has not been afraid to attempt a fourth-down conversion. The Bearcats are 8-17 on fourth down while Carolina is 12-18.
As Tar Heel fans (and Tar Heel opponents) learned over the course of the season, Ryan Switzer is dangerous with the ball in his hands. If his blockers have time to set up a return, watch out.