It took almost every second of the 60 minutes played to determine the winner of the 83rd Hyundai Sun Bowl as two storied universities, Stanford and North Carolina, fought down to the wire before the 16th-ranked Cardinal eventually prevailed 25-23 over the Tar Heels in front of 42,166 fans.
UNC (8-5) trailed by eight with 1:34 left in the game and had to drive 97 yards to try and tie the game after a Stanford (10-3) punt pinned them at the 3-yard line.
Tar Heel quarterback Mitch Trubisky showed why he is considered one of the top quarterback prospects for the NFL, bouncing back from three previous turnovers to lead UNC down the field on that final drive.
Trubisky began the drive with a 13-yard completion to All-ACC first teamer Ryan Switzer. The big pass play came a few plays later after Trubisky hit his big 6-5 target Bug Howard down the sideline for a 44-yard completion that took the ball from the UNC 28-yard line to the Stanford 28-yard line.
Once again it was Switzer and Howard that would wrap up the drive as a 27-yard completion to Switzer placed the ball at the 1-yard line with just over 30 seconds remaining. After a run that lost a yard and an incomplete pass, Trubisky seemed to be in trouble on third down but somehow escaped, scrambled and eventually found Howard in the end zone with 25 seconds left to get within a two-point conversion of tying the game.
But the biggest name on the Cardinal defense came up big during the two-point conversion as defensive end and eventual C.M. Hendricks MVP award winner Solomon Thomas sliced through the Tar Heel offensive line and got to Trubisky before he had a chance to get a pass off. A failed onside kick would close UNC’s chances and give Stanford its third Sun Bowl victory and first in 20 years.
The future NFL prospect Thomas finished with seven tackles, two for losses, a sack and the biggest play of the game. He is the first defensive player to win the Sun Bowl MVP since UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt was named Co-MVP in 2013 and the first defensive lineman to win the award since Oregon State’s Victor Butler won the award in 2008.
Trubisky finished 23-of-39 for 280 yards but had three costly turnovers including two interceptions and a fumble. On the Stanford side, senior quarterback Ryan Burns relieved starter Keller Chryst after he got injured in the first quarter. Burns finished 6-of-12 for 86 yards. Leading the charge for the Cardinal was running back Bryce Love, who was playing in place of Stanford’s All-American Christian McCaffrey. Love finished with 119 yards on the ground on 21 carries including a career-high 59-yard romp. He also caught a 49-yard touchdown pass.
The Tar Heels would take an early 7-0 lead, only to see the Cardinal mark 16-straight points, mainly off the leg of place kicker Conrad Ukropina who tied a Sun Bowl record with four field goals in the game en route to being named the John Folmer Most Valuable Special Teams Player.
The Tar Heels struck first to open the scoring. After holding the Cardinal to a three-and-out on their first possession, Trubisky led UNC on a 10-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Trubisky to Switzer. The touchdown connection was Trubisky’s 29th passing touchdown of the season, a new school record.
The rest of the first-half scoring, however, belonged to the team from the Pac-12 as Stanford would rally for the final 13 points of the first stanza. The Cardinal immediately evened the score following the Tar Heel touchdown drive with a quick touchdown drive of their own.
The drive, which only took six plays and less than three minutes, culminated with a 49-yard touchdown pass Chryst to Love. Love’s first touchdown reception of the season knotted the game at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
Stanford then had an eventful third possession that started around midfield after a UNC three-and-out. After an early personal foul flag for a late hit against the Tar Heels, the Cardinal seemed to have their second-straight touchdown after Chryst hit JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the corner of the end zone for an apparent 27-yard score. The called was looked at and after further review it was determined that the ball hit the ground before the catch, thus negating the score.
On the next play from scrimmage, Chryst ran down the field on a quarterback keeper, but did not get up after the tackle. He had to be helped off the field with an apparent knee injury and would not return to the game. Burns, who started the first seven games of the season for Stanford, would play the rest of the game.
Burns gained positive yardage on his first play from scrimmage, but a delay of game penalty and a sack would stall the drive. The Cardinal would have to settle for a Ukropina 44-yard field goal a few plays into the second quarter that would give them their first lead of the game.
On UNC’s following possession, Trubisky would have his first turnover as Stanford’s Dallas Lloyd intercepted a pass and returned it 45 yards to the Tar Heel 35-yard line. However, the Cardinal could not move the ball and came away empty after Ukropina missed on a 36-yard attempt that hit the left upright.
Ukropina would redeem himself, however, after Trubisky fumbled the ball after apparently running into an official with under two minutes left in the half. Ukropina nailed a 33-yarder, his school record 20th of the season, as Stanford led 13-7 at the half.
UNC kicker Nick Weiler tried to cut into the Cardinal lead during the first possession of the second half, but his 51-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. The middle portion of the third quarter saw the teams add a field goal to their score as Ukropina hit a 43-yard field goal and Weiler redeemed himself with a 37-yarder.
Down six, the Tar Heels turned to senior running back T. J. Logan to help them regain the lead. Logan’s running led a 9-play, 68-yard drive that culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run by freshman Jordan Brown, his first career touchdown. UNC regained the lead 17-16 with just over two minutes left in the third.
Lloyd once again came up big for Stanford a couple of plays into the fourth quarter as the senior safety once again intercepted a Trubisky pass, this time running it back 19 yards for a pick-six that once again gave the Cardinal the lead, this time at 22-17 after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Ukropina’s record-tying fourth field goal with 3:23 left gave Stanford a 25-17 lead that set up the game’s final dramatic moments.
Stanford has now won its last three bowl games and finishes the season on a six-game winning streak. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, finish the season losing two of three and have lost three-straight bowl games.