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Pitt falls to North Carolina, 34-31

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt came into tonight’s game against North Carolina desperately needing a victory to keep their bowl hopes from being on absolute life support.

That, um, didn’t happen.

The Panthers dropped their most recent game on Thursday to the 1-8 (and winless in the ACC) Tar Heels, 34-31. The loss continues Pitt’s woes against North Carolina as the Panthers still have never beaten the Tar Heels since joining the ACC.

These are the kind of games where you look at the box score and suddenly wonder exactly how you lost. Pitt outgained North Carolina in yardage, had only one penalty to seven for the Tar Heels, won the time of possession battle, and controlled the game on the ground with 267 rushing yards to only 96 for North Carolina. You do that, you’re generally supposed to win. Aside from the running game, though, Pitt was just sort of lackluster in virtually every other phase. Darrin Hall gave the team a superhuman effort with 151 rushing and receiving yards to go along with four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough.

As usual, Pitt couldn’t pass the ball, which really limits what you can do offensively (more on that in a bit). Defensively, Pitt wasn’t good, either. The Panthers didn’t give up a ton of yardage but couldn’t get enough stops. And they even lost the special teams battle as North Carolina converted two long field goals, including a 51-yarder, and gave up a kickoff return touchdown to open the game to Anthony Ratliff-Williams. That name would be a thorn in the side of the team all night. He also caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and threw for another on a trick play.

Pitt had lots of problems but two things stuck out to me.

First, was Pitt getting behind early. I said in the gamethread that, while they still had a chance to come back when they got down 14-3 in the first quarter, I didn’t see them winning a shootout. Pitt’s offense just isn’t that good. Thus, even when you make a run and go ahead like they did, you’re relying on the defense to play lights out. The other team is trying to score points, too. That didn’t happen and Pitt’s offense just stalled out. Sure, they held a late lead and could have held on to win when they were ahead in the fourth quarter. But not only is the offense not good enough, the defense isn’t good enough to hold small leads.

Second, there were just big, momentum-changing plays that went against them. They got off to a terrible start giving up the opening kickoff return for a touchdown. Any enthusiasm they had for the game had to be sucked out at that point. There was also that killer of a shift right before the half when Quadree Henderson fumbled just before scoring a would-be touchdown and after a long return, North Carolina kicked a field goal. Instead of going into the half with a 24-21 lead, Pitt found itself with a seven-point deficit. That’s a ten-point swing and a lot to overcome for a team that isn’t anywhere close to being an offensive juggernaut. Again, sure, you’ve got chances to win games late but games are back and forth. When you have a chance to take advantage, you’ve got to seize it.

Speaking of offense, that point I made earlier about not being able to pass the ball really came into play later in the game on the last two drives.

Pitt tried to run on the first play of the next to last drive and Hall was stuffed. That forced Pitt into a second and long, requiring them to throw and an incompletion later, they tried to throw again when DiNucci was sacked.

On the final drive down three points, Pitt seemed to be in halfway decent shape with the ball at midfield. But on first down, DiNucci took a sack, which forced Pitt into a 2nd and 19. DiNucci still has trouble throwing the ball away and it cost the team there. Pitt was then in a situation where they couldn’t really run and were forced to throw twice. Both were incompletions.

I know we are starting to look at DiNucci with the mindset that, as long as he doesn’t kill the team, Pitt can win with him. While that might be true some of the time, his inability to throw the ball makes the offense one-sided and puts the Panthers at a real disadvantage. There’s something to be said for managing games but there’s a reason coaches don’t really like those kind of quarterbacks. If you can’t make plays, it makes it very difficult to win consistently because, ultimately, you run into tight games like this one and the margin for error is significantly smaller.

Not being able to throw creates two big problems. For one thing, it makes it harder to run because teams gear up to stop it. Then, it also hurts you late in games when you need to dig out of passing downs to pick up bigger chunks of yardage. If you’re ahead, that doesn’t matter as much. But playing from behind, it’s really an issue.

The frustrating thing here is that Pitt actually did enough to win. No, I don’t think they did much well beyond running the ball but they’ve won before doing less. When you can’t get key defensive stops and come out with so many key gaffes, you take very winnable games and turn them into uphill battles. Hats off to the Tar Heels - they simply kept making plays and Pitt ran out of gas.

I felt all week that this was the one thing Pitt couldn’t afford. These are the sorts of games where fans just lose interest. I’d argue that it even goes beyond this season. When you don’t even get to a bowl game, keeping enthusiasm up during the offseason is very difficult. Pitt will do okay with ticket sales because of packaging some games with the Penn State home game next season. But I can’t imagine fans are going to be really enthusiastic about the upcoming season over the winter and through the spring. The team has a glaring hole at quarterback and some other issues, like a defense still struggling to find its way.

It’s been a really difficult season for fans and just when you start to build a little momentum with wins against Duke and Virginia, you go out and lose to a 1-8 North Carolina team decimated by injuries. I maintained earlier this week that the Tar Heels were not as bad as their record but a game like this, where you’re nearly a double-digit favorite at home and that’s virtually a must win to get to a bowl ...

Gotta have that one, folks.

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