PITTSBURGH — With a 4-6 record and ranked opponents in each of their final two games against No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Miami, Pitt’s bowl hopes took an enormous hit on Thursday with a 34-31 loss to North Carolina.
It was the Panthers fifth straight loss to the Tar Heels, and this one may be the hardest to take of them all. The Panthers now will need to either sweep their duo of ranked opponents or split the two games and hope to leapfrog enough of the 15 four- or five-win teams they currently trail in APR.
As always, here are my Five Takeaways:
When a team loses by a field goal and hands its opponent a 10-point swing in two plays, it’s not exactly in-depth analysis to say that those plays had an outsized effect on the end result.
But Anthony Ratliff-Williams’ return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown and J.K. Britt and Cayson Collins teaming up to turn what looked like a sure-fire Quadree Henderson touchdown into a 66-yard fumble return essentially turned the tide of the entire game in favor of North Carolina.
If Pitt was able to make one tackle or hold onto the ball, they probably walk out of Heinz Field with a win.
“We talk all the time about ‘Taking it,’ and we found a way to give it away, really, in my opinion,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Seven points [on the opening kickoff] does not help you. Kind of a gift, in my opinion. I give them credit, but, it’s not what they did, it’s what we did.
“We take one down to the goal-line there, fumble the ball at the one. They return it and get three points there before the half. That’s 10, plus seven, is 17 points. No team is good enough to overcome that stuff. We certainly aren’t there yet, to the point that we can overcome that.”
HAUL FOR HALL
Pitt giving up the opening kickoff for a touchdown not only put seven points on the board for North Carolina, but helped the Tar Heels maintain an advantage on the scoreboard through most of the first half.
“It changes things,” Narduzzi said. “Who wants to play from behind? But we did a great job running the football. Darrin Hall was a man again today, I think. I was impressed again with Darrin Hall.”
Pitt didn’t seem fazed by the early deficit and kept on running the ball, with Hall finishing with 121 yards on 23 carries and four touchdowns.
“We didn’t panic,” Hall said. “The offensive line didn’t want to quit on the run game and we didn’t. We pointed them. I just think we have to finish a little bit better.”
EMPTY SET, EMPTY RESULT
The finishing Hall was referring to came on Pitt’s final offensive possession of the game. With Pitt trailing by three, the Panthers had moved the ball to midfield with a Ben DiNucci rush and passes to Qadree Ollison and Jester Weah.
Things fell apart from there, when on 1st-and-10, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson lined the Panthers up in an empty set for the first time all evening. But Pitt’s offensive line couldn’t block long enough for the play to develop and DiNucci was sacked by Malik Carney to put Pitt in a 2nd and 19 situation.
Pitt then ran another pass play where DiNucci was chased from the pocket and had to throw the ball away and another where he couldn’t find Rafael Araujo-Lopes in traffic. Pitt had been running the ball at a 7.1-yard-per-carry clip up to that point. Instead, they threw the ball on their final five offensive plays.
“You get behind the sticks and then you end up throwing a bit more than you’d like to,” Narduzzi said, suggesting that DiNucci’s sack was part of the problem.
On that play, DiNucci said he didn’t have enough time to find his primary receiver and was just caught trying to escape the pocket.
“The play is designed to get Quadree [Henderson] the ball on a little option on their middle linebacker,” DiNucci said. “I think they ran a twist with both defensive ends and looped the tackles out. A guy showed up in face, I just tried to make him miss and he got me down.”
DEFENSE DOESN’T HOLD
Pitt’s defense had been playing pretty well for two straight games, and played well in the first half, limiting NC State to 170 yards by the break. But the Tar Heels broke out for a long scoring drive in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good and also gained multiple first downs on their final drive to ice the win.
“It was just execution, little technical stuff here and there that could have helped us out finishing the game,” said linebacker Seun Idowu.
Statistically, it was still a pretty good day for the defense, which gave up just 96 yards rushing and 366 total yards. They also held North Carolina to no gain and a field goal after Henderson’s fumble, so they can really only be held responsible for 24 of the points allowed. But couldn’t come up with a big play when they needed to late.
“We were there, the calls were good, it just came down to making the play,” said safety Jordan Whitehead.
North Carolina got a splash play on a reverse pass from Ratliff-Williams to Josh Cabrera for a 35-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead said they’d seen the play before on film, but Pitt’s defense was caught unaware.
“We saw a lot of reverse passes and trick plays,” Whitehead said. “We knew it was coming. On the sideline, we were talking about it. … The way the ball was moving, it was a [10-play] drive, they just caught us off guard with the trick play.”