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Pitt grabs 34-27 overtime win from North Carolina

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

Given what I’d seen out of North Carolina tonight, I figured Pitt would need to score points to win. I’d just hoped the number needed would be closer to 24 instead of 34 and when I heard Maurice Ffrench was out for the game, I really thought that even that may be pushing it. But the Panthers ultimately gutted out a 34-27 overtime win on Thursday and, I thought, just played incredibly hard.

Before I get to the game, word on Ffrench is that he has a broken or injured jaw. While some speculation was that he could be out for the rest of the year, head coach Pat Narduzzi apparently dismissed that notion. Ffrench has underachieved this year in my mind but he’s also a critical part to the offense and there’s little doubt that Pitt is better with him in there. If/When he comes back, though, is unknown at this point. And even if it were known internally, you can bet that Narduzzi will have information under lock and key, just as he does with virtually every other injury.

So, to the game. Positives from Pitt (7-3) included a surprisingly good night from the offense. There were hiccups but I thought they mostly did well in defeating North Carolina (4-6) for the first time since joining the ACC. Kenny Pickett threw for 359 yards, completed 25-41 passes, and more importantly, avoided the interceptions we’ve seen from him lately. Pickett did a masterful job of spreading the ball around with nine different guys catching passes (and seven caught more than one)

The biggest thing I liked from Pitt tonight was something I said they needed to do in the last recap after the Georgia Tech win. In case you missed that one, here’s what I said:

So let’s talk about that offense. Another tough game, right? Look, the turnovers are clearly a major problem. But I also think there’s something Pitt can do to help themselves — and that’s taking some more shots downfield.

A big emphasis is on how much the Panthers are passing the ball. They are throwing a ton and are among the nation’s leaders. But so many of the passes are of the ultra conservative variety and are really short routes. Case in point, Maurice Ffrench is a playmaker and capable of breaking off big plays. He had a career-high 11 catches today but they were only for a total of 71 yards.

A really funny instance of the ridiculously short passes was when Pitt had a 3rd and 4 and completed a two or three-yard pass, falling short of the sticks and having to punt.

A casual fan might point out that Pitt has to at least throw the ball past the sticks there and that’s usually the philosophy. But I don’t know that those deliberately short passes aren’t by design. Pitt has been trying to throw short, get guys in space, and allow them to make plays with their legs. I get what they’re trying to do but sometimes, you’ve just got to air it out a bit.

Part of the reason Pickett had so many yards is that Pitt took shots down the field. Now, his accuracy is in question so they didn’t always connect. But the Panthers hit on a couple of deep balls and that really helped keep the defense honest, I suspect. More importantly, it took some of the pressure off of Pickett because instead of trying to be accurate on a bunch of shorter routes and rely on guys to not drop balls (a big ask based on what we’ve seen this year, by the way), he was able to eat up some large chunks of yardage at a time and really make things a little easier.

As I said after the Georgia Tech game, I think Pitt is limited in how much they can go deep. But you really have to make a concerted effort to at least try it — particularly when you have a guy like Taysir Mack who is incredibly talented, and Shocky Jacques-Louis, who nearly came up with a big touchdown pass that was reversed and ruled not a catch. Jacques-Louis, who had four catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, could really be a factor down the stretch here.

Defensively, the Panthers did okay, which is kind of an eyebrow-raiser given how lights out they’ve been. But they definitely showed some vulnerabilities in allowing 17 fourth quarter points to let North Carolina back in it.

One thing I could have done without was Pitt’s insistence on keeping North Carolina in the game. I just thought Pitt had really bullied them around and had control of the game until late. They just have this uncanny knack of letting teams back into games. When you look back at some of the ways the Panthers kept the Tar Heels’ drives alive, it becomes easier to see why Pitt hasn’t been able to beat them since joining the ACC until now. In all, Pitt had ten penalties for 83 yards and, as was mentioned during the broadcast, the Panthers are fifth in the nation for most penalties. Mix in a bad decision by head coach Pat Narduzzi to go for a fourth down attempt instead of kicking a field goal and then kicker Alex Kessman seemingly justifying that decision by missing a later short field goal, and you get an unnecessarily close game.

Really dumb early potential targeting call against Amir Watts. 3rd and 26 and Damar Hamlin gets tossed for targeting before halftime, giving North Carolina a first down. Defensive holding on 3rd and 12 in the fourth, keeping the drive alive, and the Tar Heels go on for a touchdown. Pass interference on a 3rd and 3 play kept North Carolina’s next drive alive, which resulted in the game-tying field goal. I don’t know. North Carolina wasn’t without their own mistakes but I just feel like the Pitt stuff happens over and over and over.

There was a mention during the broadcast that Pitt just plays so hard on defense that this is just part of the package. To some degree, maybe. But some of the penalties were just so excessively dumb. None more blatant, perhaps, than the aforementioned Watts charging an offensive player that was practically down and making a helmet-to-helmet hit that was somehow ruled not targeting. Just really senseless stuff that not only is not a result of playing hard but that just doesn’t make much sense to boot.

Still, the defense does deserve credit for making some crucial stops as well. The Tar Heels could have scored a touchdown at the end of regulation but the team held them there to the field goal. Then they had the big stops in overtime to seal the win. So while the penalties and breakdowns are part of the narrative, those big plays down the stretch to seal the win should be, too. It’s also noteworthy, of course, that Pitt did that without Hamlin in there, who was ejected for targeting.

The thing I really come away with here is that this was yet another game that probably shouldn’t have been that close. I thought that Pitt really outplayed North Carolina up until the final quarter. The story on Pitt’s season has been the close losses but if you look at some of these games, they’re just close when they really don’t have to be. And, sure, while we can talk about a game being 60 minutes, just by going on the eye test, Pitt looked like the better team to me, even with the flaws.

This was a very good win. It, of course, keeps the Panthers in the hunt for the Coastal Division title and that’s what the emphasis will be on. But what shouldn’t be lost is that North Carolina, despite their 4-6 record, is a pretty good team. And their freshman quarterback Sam Howell is already a handful. You talk about kids you aren’t looking forward to seeing in the future, he’s one of them for me. He made some really clutch throws and, at 27-43 for 322 yards and three touchdowns, he had virtually as good a night as Pickett did with an interception his only real blemish.

The formula for Pitt and the Coastal Division is pretty simple at this point. Beat Virginia Tech and Boston College coupled with a Virginia loss to Virginia Tech, and the Panthers will win the Division. After that, some weird scenario was briefly discussed during the game where several three-loss teams could complicate things. But, hey, past midnight on a weeknight, there’s no way I’m going down that rabbit hole right now. One of you, I suspect, could enlighten the rest of us, anyway.

Keeping it simple, this was a big win for Pitt and they remain very much in the hunt to reach the ACC title game again, though they need some help from Virginia Tech against Virginia in a few weeks.

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