Well, that didn't go as planned.
Pitt being on the big stage tonight was unavoidable. The University did its best to ensure a big crowd with a special ticket offer. At 6-1, the Panthers were off to their best start since 2009 when the team raced to a 9-1 record in its first ten games. The Coastal Division may not have been on the line but the winner would come out with a clear path to win it.
All of the pieces were in place but in the end, the Panthers simply couldn't keep up with North Carolina, losing 26-19 at home on Thursday night.
Pitt had several problems during the game. A lackluster pass rush put the secondary at an extreme disadvantage as North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams threw for 270 yards - only 12 yards shy of the season-best 284 he put up against Wake Forest.
Then there was the running game, which was average at best. Despite facing a run defense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS, the Panthers' two running backs, Qadree Ollison and Chris James, still mustered only 98 combined yards. For Pitt to have any kind of chance to win the game, they really needed to establish the running game and that didn't happen.
Even the coaches had serious issues. Major miscommunication cost the team approximately ten crucial seconds at the end of the first half when driving to potentially score some points. Pat Narduzzi appeared livid with offensive coordinator John Chaney as Nathan Peterman looked to the sidelines for a play call. Pitt was forced to use a timeout. That proved costly as the Panthers needed another timeout as they simply ran out of time and weren't able to get the ball into the end zone or spike it for a field goal attempt.
Lots of things went wrong in that sequence and while the timekeeper didn't do Pitt any favors, the lack of communication there was startling. The coaches have to be better there and I'm sure Narduzzi would be the first to say that. An end of half scenario is something teams prepare for - you can't get to that moment and freeze up. Another key issue in that entire mess was the Panthers wasting a timeout when North Carolina was preparing to punt. That timeout could have been used to stop the clock and attempt a field goal. Instead, the Panthers didn't have it and had to take a shot at the end zone. Blunder after blunder prevented Pitt from closing the gap there.
Finally, we saw the team start slowly yet again. While the Panthers did march down the field for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead, not getting into the end zone was a bit frustrating. North Carolina quickly put up 20 unanswered points and the team went into the half trailing by 14. Pitt hasn't led at halftime since the Virginia contest three games ago and this time (unlike against Syracuse and Georgia Tech), they simply couldn't recover. The fourth quarter rejuvenation/party thing is great, but in reality, the team needs to make sure they are getting off to better starts.
Frustrating, too, was that the Panthers were given opportunities but couldn't capitalize on them. This often seemed like a one-sided affair, but Pitt had several chances to change their fortunes.
In the second quarter, they had Marquise Williams wrapped up for a sack until he escaped (all despite a blatant facemask, no less) and threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer to put the Tar Heels up 10-3. Dontez Ford lost a costly fumble in Pitt's territory and North Carolina scored another touchdown. There was the debacle at the end of the first half, which resulted in no points. On the first drive of the second half after a blocked punt, Pitt had to settle for a field goal despite reaching the North Carolina 8-yard line. Pitt used a fake punt to keep a drive alive in the fourth quarter only to have to actually punt shortly afterwards. All night long, the Panthers just seemed a step behind and couldn't capitalize when they needed to.
Adding to the annoyance was that the game was a nationally-televised event. Pitt had a chance to help put its program back on the map with every eyeball in the nation on them. Instead, they were outplayed by, admittedly, a very good team.
Still, the one thing you absolutely shouldn't take from this is a Same Old Pitt mentality. This team is not the same as they have been in the Paul Chryst or Todd Graham era. To forget all that Pat Narduzzi has already accomplished would be shortsighted. The Panthers are still 6-2 and while the schedule remains difficult, the progress the program has made has to be recognized. North Carolina is a very good team and at 7-1, this is hardly a bad loss. Frustrating? Absolutely. But it isn't the end of the world or even the Panthers' season. Pitt was simply beaten by a better opponent tonight - and, well, that just happens sometimes.