CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When North Carolina freshman Ryan Switzer reported to training camp in August he was a little miffed to learn he was third on the depth chart at punt returner.
“I kind of got mad because when I was getting recruited I was told I going to start at punt return,” Switzer said.
Rather than pout, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Switzer went about working even harder to earn the starting job.
The 18-year-old not only did that, but capped a memorable season Saturday by returning a punt 86 yards for a touchdown to help North Carolina beat Cincinnati 39-17 for its first Belk Bowl title in four tries. It was Switzer’s fifth punt return for a TD this season, tying an NCAA record.
T.J. Logan returned a kickoff 78 yards for a touchdown, Marquise Williams threw for 171 yards and a score and Romar Morris had two short TD runs as the Tar Heels (7-6) won a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
The victory also capped a huge turnaround for the Tar Heels, who started the season 1-5.
“We’re standing here today because of our coaching staff and our senior leadership,” said Switzer, the game’s MVP. “Those two groups, they didn’t let us hang our heads. They didn’t let one person walk into the building who wasn’t willing to work. We knew we had the talent the ability to turn the season around. We had to have the heart to do it.”
Said second-year coach Larry Fedora: “At 1-5, nobody thought we would be sitting here today. But these guys kept believing and got it done.”
Cincinnati (9-4) was looking to become the bowl’s first back-to-back champion since Virginia did it 10 years ago, but Brendon Kay — the MVP last year — was limited to 181 yards passing and no touchdowns.
The Tar Heels brought relentless pressure and had five sacks, including one for a safety.
“They knew we were missing some starters on the offensive line, and they threw the kitchen sink at us,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “They twisted, they did all kinds of things up front, and our quarterback could never set his feet. He didn’t have a chance. … We expected it, but there’s not a lot we could do about it.”
North Carolina came in having lost its previous three in-state Belk Bowl appearances, but bolted to a 23-3 halftime lead behind a pair of long touchdown drives led by Williams and Logan’s nifty kickoff return.
After Morris scored on a 2-yard run to make it 7-0, Brandon Ellerbe and Kareem Martin sacked Kay in the end zone for a safety — the first of three sacks in the opening half. On the ensuing kickoff, Logan put the Tar Heels in control by fielding the ball near the left sideline and cutting back up the middle of the field for the score.
Williams made it 23-3 in the second quarter, hitting Tabb on a quick slant for a 3-yard touchdown strike.
“I thought our defense was just dominating in the first half,” Fedora said.
Unlike last year’s Belk Bowl when Cincinnati spotted Duke 17 points and stormed back to win 48-34 behind Kay’s four touchdown passes, there would be no Bearcats comeback.
Switzer turned in another big special teams play in the third quarter when he fielded a punt at his own 14 exploded up the field for an 86-yard TD after several Bearcats overran the punt.
“I sold it,” Switzer said. “When I caught it they just kind of stood there and I was able to take it and run.”
The Bearcats reached the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown run by Ralph David Abernathy, but the Tar Heels answered with a methodical 13-play, 65-yard drive, with Morris scoring his second touchdown on a 1-yard plunge to make it 36-10.
Fedora said he’s excited about North Carolina’s future as the school looks to put the memory of NCAA sanctions behind them for good.
“We are going in the right direction,” Fedora said. “There is a tremendous positive buzz about the Tar Heels in the state of North Carolina.”
Kay said it was an emotional way to end his career at Cincinnati.
“This is not the way (the seniors) wanted to go out, by any means,” Kay said. “It’s tough. We’ve been through a lot this year — coaching changes, losing a teammate (in a deadly car accident), other ups and downs — but I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else but this team, these seniors.”
NOTES: North Carolina announced that James Hurst, the team’s first-team All-ACC senior left tackle, suffered a non-displaced fibula fracture in his left leg. … Shaq Washington played some quarterback for Cincinnati and scored on a 10-yard touchdown run late in the game. … Tar Heels punter Tommy Hibbard pinned the Bearcats inside the 20 three times.