Paul Chryst’s Pitt Panthers entered Saturday’s home game needing just one win to become bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive season.
Pitt erased a 27-3 second half deficit, but their 24-point comeback went all for naught as the Pitt special teams broke down, allowing North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer to return his second punt for a touchdown of the game with just 4:46 remaining to give the Tar Heels a 34-27 victory, the fourth consecutive win for the Tar Heels after starting the season 1-5.
After upsetting Notre Dame a week ago, many thought the Panthers would come in with momentum and take care of their home field, where Pitt entered Saturday 4-1 on the season.
Instead the Panthers dug themselves a huge hole.
Similar to their loss at Navy a few weeks ago, the Panthers actually dominated the first quarter, but had only three points to show for it.
After their first two drives, Pitt (5-5, 2-4) was outgaining the Tar Heels 125-2, but had to settle for a Chris Blewitt 28-yard field goal on their first drive and quarterback Tom Savage fumbled inside the red zone on their second.
The Savage fumble turned out to be a big play as it got North Carolina (5-5, 4-3) going.
Pitt has struggled defending mobile quarterbacks this season and UNC’s Marquise Williams was no exception as he rushed for 79 yards on 15 carries on the day, scoring on runs of 16 and 10 yards to give the Tar Heels a 17-3 second quarter lead.
Then with just over a minute remaining in the first half, Switzer struck for the first time, returning a punt 65 yards for a touchdown, making it a 24-3 game.
Thomas Moore‘s second field goal of the day made it 27-3 before the Pitt offense woke up.
Savage connected with Devin Street on a 33-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-10 at the end of three quarters. The senior Street finished the day with five receptions for 81 yards, becoming the first Pitt wide receiver in history to eclipse 200 career receptions.
Savage hit running back Isaac Bennett with an eight-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 27-17 and then the Panthers defense started making big plays.
Ray Vinopal forced a Romar Morris fumble that the Panthers quickly turned into points with another Blewitt field goal to make it a one possession game. On the ensuing kickoff, Malcolm Crockett forced a fumble by T.J. Logan that Pitt’s Jason Hendricks recovered at the UNC 12-yard line. Two plays later freshman James Connor tied the game with a two-yard plunge.
Pitt then forced a UNC punt, but despite getting off a poor kick, Tar Heels punter Tommy Hibbard got a friendly roll on what turned out to be a 55-yard punt that was downed at the Panthers seven-yard line.
That turned out to be a huge play in the game.
Backed deep in their own territory, Pitt got conservative and went three-and-out.
Matt Yoklic‘s punt traveled 50 yards, but Switzer only needed one block as he zig-zagged his way 61 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Savage led the Panthers on a potential game-tying drive but despite marching to the North Carolina 26 with under 2 minutes remaining, the Tar Heels stuffed Connor on fourth-and-1 and escaped with a win.
The freshman finished with 102 yards on only 19 carries, but had nowhere to go on the crucial fourth down play.
The poor performance of the Pitt offensive line was the story of the afternoon.
Savage shook off constant pressure and a knee injury to complete 23 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, but the pressure he was under was too much or Pitt to do much at all.
The Tar Heel attacked Savage relentlessly all afternoon. During one five-possession span in the second and third quarters, Savage endured six sacks, avoided another by intentionally grounding the ball by switching the ball to his left (non-throwing) hand and injured his left knee at the end of a lengthy scramble.
Savage was sacked seven times in all and could have been dropped double that amount.
Pitt will look to secure that bowl bid next Saturday when they travel to take on Syracuse