CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ryan Switzer wasn't about to leave the Belk Bowl without taking another shot at matching an NCAA record.
So the North Carolina freshman wide receiver put aside the notion to make a fair catch and fielded a third-quarter punt, then raced 86 yards for a touchdown in Saturday's 39-17 romp past Cincinnati at Bank of America Stadium.
"I was frustrated," Switzer said of his decision to make the return. "I wasn't getting touches. I just hit the seam and I worked perfect."
North Carolina's defense chewed up Cincinnati for most of the game as the Tar Heels (7-6) won for the first time in four tries in an in-state bowl outing.
The Tar Heels won six of their last seven games, completing a late-season rise in a matchup of teams that had strong latter parts of the regular season.
The Bearcats (9-4), trying for a third bowl victory in as many seasons, ended their first season under coach Tommy Tuberville with a miserable performance.
"No one feels (the season) is a failure, but none of us wanted to go to the offseason like this," Bearcats wide receiver Shaq Washington said.
Cincinnati was trying to repeat its Belk Bowl victory from a year ago over Duke.
Switzer's fifth punt return for a touchdown this season tied an NCAA record and set an Atlantic Coast Conference standard. The scoring play pushed the Tar Heels' lead to 29-3, and Switzer was selected the game's Most Valuable Player.
"I don't think they expected me to not fair catch it," Switzer said. "All I saw was green grass. All I had to do was make the punter miss, and run."
Switzer matched a 2004 record set by Chad Owens of Hawaii. Switzer has scored in some fashion in five of the Tar Heels' last seven games.
North Carolina, which was banned from the 2012 postseason because of NCAA sanctions, played in its first bowl game under second-year coach Larry Fedora.
"A lot of people wrote us off and didn't give us a chance," senior cornerback Jabari Price said. "Last year, I was sitting on the couch watching bowl games and this year I was playing in one."
Two of the Tar Heels' touchdown drives included fourth-down conversions.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, playing in his hometown, completed 19-of-33 passes for 171 yards. Running back Romar Morris scored on two short runs.
The Bearcats allowed only 12 sacks in the regular season, but quarterback Brendon Kay was sacked five times, four in the first half. Kay was the bowl's MVP last year, but he connected on only 15-of-35 passes for 181 yards with an interception this time.
"They got after us from the word go," Tuberville said. "We didn't respond very well from adversity. ... I would have hoped we would have played better, coached better."
Price said the sacks, which resulted in minus-51 yards, set a tone for the defense.
"It created momentum and created a snowball effect," Price said.
North Carolina punted on the game's first possession, but a muffed punt gave the Tar Heels the ball at the Cincinnati 32-yard line. The Tar Heels didn't convert when Thomas Moore's 40-yard field-goal attempt went wide right.
The next time they had the ball, Morris scored on a two-yard run.
It was 9-0 when defensive end Kareem Martin and linebacker Brandon Ellerbe sacked Kay in the end zone for a safety. There was 2:25 remaining in the first quarter and Kay had been sacked three times.
Running back T.J. Logan returned the ensuing free kick 78 yards for a touchdown and it was 16-0. Logan finished with 77 rushing yards on 15 carries without playing the fourth quarter because of a knee injury.
Cincinnati trailed Duke, 16-0, year ago here, but there was not much of a comeback this time.
The Bearcats struck on kicker Tony Miliano's 34-yard field goal at the 14:17 mark of the second quarter.
North Carolina responded when tight end Jack Tabb caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Williams. That 12-play, 76-yard drive included a fourth-and-7 pick-up of 18 yards on Williams' pass to tight end Eric Ebron.
After Kay was sacked again, Miliano missed from 46 yards.
Running back Ralph David Abernathy IV gave Cincinnati its first touchdown on a 15-yard run with 8:08 to play in the third quarter.
North Carolina followed with a 13-play, 65-yard march, with Morris scoring from one yard after another fourth-down play that prolonged the possession.
Cincinnati wide receiver Shaq Washington added a 10-yard touchdown run in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. North Carolina fumbled the kickoff at its own six-yard-line, but the Bearcats were unable to punch it in on four snaps.
Then the Tar Heels kept the ball for more than nine minutes before Moore kicked a season-long 40-yard field goal.
NOTES: North Carolina's previous bowl outings in Charlotte resulted in losses to Boston College (2004), West Virginia (2008) and Pittsburgh (2009). ... The Tar Heels were the second team from a Bowl Championship Series conference to start the season 1-5 and end up in a bowl. Rutgers in 2008 was the other. ... Cincinnati entered a bowl game coming off a loss in the regular-season finale for the first time since 2004. ... North Carolina T James Hurst, a senior, set a school record with his 49th career start, but he left because of broken left leg in the first quarter. ... North Carolina won the previous two meetings with Cincinnati, during the regular season in 1979 and 1991.