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No. 21 Pitt tops North Carolina 30-23 in primetime tilt

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

No. 21 Pitt and North Carolina met at Heinz Field for a primetime Thursday night tilt with major implications in the ACC Coastal race, and the Panthers rose to the occasion, sending the Tar Heels home with a 30-23 loss.

Pitt was aggressive early on, as Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett led the team all the way down the field to the North Carolina six-yard line, where Pitt opted to go for it on fourth-and-one but failed to convert. However, the Pitt defenders were ready for the opportunity in front of them, and they responded by forcing a three-and-out that ended with SirVocea Dennis taking down Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell for a drive-killing sack on their one.

On the next drive, Pitt would take advantage of a short field, with Pickett connecting with Panthers tight end Gavin Bartholomew for a gain of 10 that put Pitt on the North Carolina two-yard line. From there, Panthers running back Vincent Davis would run it up the middle and punch it in to put Pitt up 7-0.

The Pitt defense would not let up after that, as Habakkuk Baldonado set Howell back nine yards with another sack, kicking off what would be the unit’s second three-and-out in a row. That led to a solid punt return by Jordan Addison and another short field, which Pitt would traverse in four plays. The last of those plays would be a one-yard pass from Pickett to Bartholomew to make it 14-0.

The Tar Heels would go three and out yet again on the next drive, handing the ball over to Pitt with another punt. That set Pitt up in its own territory for the first time since the opening kickoff, but that field position would quickly change with a 42-yard bomb from Pickett to Addison that placed Pitt on the edge of the red zone. It was also historic, as it gave Pickett the record for career passing yards at Pitt. But the drive would end in a 34-yard Sam Scarton field goal to increase Pitt’s lead to 17.

Pitt would kick off the second quarter with its fourth sack of Howell. This time, it was Calijah Kancey who brought him down, and once again, it killed a North Carolina drive. But after that, Pitt and North Carolina would exchange scoreless drives before the Tar Heels came to life with just a few minutes left in the half. Howell would take advantage of a slip by Panthers cornerback Damarri Mathis and find Antoine Green for a 76-yard score.

The Panthers would respond swiftly, with two big passes to Jared Wayne accruing a total of 59 yards and a touchdown. Of course, a defensive holding call by Tar Heels defensive back Storm Duck on third down would spot the Panthers 10 yards on that drive and give them new life before the 32-yard strike from Pickett to Wayne gave Pitt a 23-7 advantage after a missed extra-point attempt by Scarton. And with the Tar Heels unable to respond, that would remain the score at halftime.

North Carolina would strike first in the second half, as Howell and Green connected again for a 23-yard score. But after a failed two-point attempt, the Tar Heels would still be down 23-13. Pitt would try to answer late in the third quarter with a 53-yard kick by Scarton, but it fell short and gifted North Carolina good field position. And with neither offense able to get much going, the game would descend into a defensive struggle in the fourth quarter.

That trend would continue until Howell found Tar Heels receiver Josh Downs streaking down the sideline for a gain of 46 and a set of goal-to-go downs. Four plays later, Howell would run the ball in from one yard out to cut Pitt's lead to three with just over five minutes left.

On the first play of the next drive, Tar Heels linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel would reel in a tipped pass from Pickett to regain possession for the visitors at a pivotal point in the game. The interception was Pickett's fourth of the season, and it would prove costly, as Tar Heels kicker Grayson Atkins would nail a chip shot to tie the game at 23-23 on the ensuing drive.

With 57 seconds left on the clock, Pickett would make a last-ditch effort to end the game. But after narrowly avoiding another interception and tossing a hailmary down the field with the presumptive intent to hit Wayne in the end zone amid a crowd of Heels, the signal-caller's efforts amounted to nothing and the two teams went into overtime.

Pitt got the ball first in overtime and promptly put together a scoring drive capped off with a bullet of a pass from Pickett to Panthers tight end Lucas Krull good for 11 yards and a score. That gave Pitt a 30-23 lead, which the Pitt defense would protect on the subsequent drive. That drive would end in spectacular fashion, too, as Howell chucked up a prayer into the driving rain on fourth-and-11 that landed in the waiting arms of Panthers defensive back M.J. Devonshire.

With the dramatic win, Pitt improved to 8-2 on the season and 5-1 in ACC play, while North Carolina fell to 5-5 and 3-4 in conference competition. The victory was Pitt's second in a row over North Carolina, a team that has not beaten Pitt during Mack Brown's tenure as head coach. Up next for Pitt is a pivotal home matchup with Virginia on Nov. 20 that could crown an ACC Coastal champion.