CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When the ball fell out of Israel Abanikanda’s grasps and onto the surface of Kenan Memorial Stadium, the game changed in a dramatic way for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
At that moment, Pitt only trailed by four points with about 11:28 to play in the fourth quarter against the No. 21 UNC Tar Heels. The Panthers hadn’t turned the ball over all evening, and Abanikanda hadn’t coughed up a fumble all season. Until that moment, when UNC linebacker Cedric Gray stripped the ball out and recovered it, setting up another touchdown drive for the Tar Heels.
Abanikanda’s three rushing touchdowns put Pitt in a position to win. The rest of the team didn’t do enough to ensure the Panthers could overcome his one mistake of the day. After his fumble, the game spiraled out of control.
And so, Pitt lost its second straight game, falling 42-24 to the Tar Heels on a cool Saturday evening.
The Panthers (4-4, 1-3 ACC) are now winless in seven tries in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, UNC (7-1, 4-0 ACC) is now in the driver’s seat to claim the Coastal crown in the final year of division play in the ACC.
For much of the game, it seemed like Abanikanda ran over, around and through the Tar Heel defense. He racked up 127 yards on 26 totes, an 4.9 yards per carry average. He now has six games this season with at least 100 rushing yards, matching James Conner’s total in 2016.
Abanikanda entered this game ranking first in FBS and leading the ACC in rushing yards with 959. He also led the country in touchdowns from scrimmage with 14. He put some padding on both of those leads today.
Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis seemed to play fine when he wasn’t asked to do too much. Until Abanikanda’s fumble, he was completing about 50% of his passes. But when Slovis had generate something to bring Pitt back from a two-possession deficit, he got shaky. In Pitt’s first series after the Abanikanda fumble, Slovis’ unit went three-and-out with no yards gained. Pitt punted and UNC scored again. Slovis finished the game completing 14-of-31 passes for 236 yards and no scores.
It has been nearly a month since a player not named Abanikanda scored a touchdown for the Panthers – when Slovis threw a touchdown pass to Jaden Bradley in an Oct. 1 home loss to Georgia Tech. And Bradley isn’t even with the team anymore.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Pitt’s defense couldn’t do enough to rattle UNC quarterback Drake Maye. The redshirt freshman – who entered this game with the second-most passing touchdowns in the country – threw for 388 yards and five scores, completing 34-of-44 passes. Pitt sacked him just twice and couldn’t force the Tar Heels into a turnover. Maye also led UNC in rushing with 61 yards on 14 carries.
Pitt led UNC 17-7 with five minutes left to play in the second quarter. With 1:38 to play until halftime, Pitt defensive tackle Calijah Kancey was ejected for targeting. He was the second Pitt player ejected for such a penalty, joining PJ O’Brien. The Tar Heels outscored the Panthers 35-7 from there.
Just a year after winning the ACC, bowl eligibility is now a legitimate concern for the Panthers. With four games left – two of them against teams with winning records, Syracuse and Duke – Pitt needs to go at least .500 to play in a lower-tier game.
Pitt may be armed with the best running back in the country, but it’s clear that the Panthers need more than just Abanikanda to become a winning football team again.