Pitt rallies but still comes up on losing end against UNC
Not long after the final verdict, Pitt safety Jason Hendricks sat down and carefully considered his team's 34-27 loss Saturday to North Carolina.
No one knew better than Hendricks, a fifth-year senior, that this spirit-sapping outcome has become painfully familiar to all who have followed Pitt's misfortunes in recent years.
His message wasn't a good one.
“We didn't bring that emotion to the field,” Hendricks said of how Pitt allowed itself to fall behind, 27-3, in the third quarter, seven days after beating Notre Dame. “We just came out flat.”
Where did such an attitude take root?
“I honestly don't know,” he said.
Pitt (5-5, 2-4) entered this final, three-game stretch of its first ACC season with plenty at stake: A lucrative bowl bid, momentum for next season, national respect. None of that has surrounded this program for the past several years.
But all hope disappeared in a series of bad plays that started with a red-zone fumble by quarterback Tom Savage in the first quarter, extended into another shoddy performance by an offensive line that allowed seven sacks and leaked onto special teams.
Pitt must win at Syracuse on Saturday or defeat Miami at home Nov. 29 to become bowl eligible.
The decisive, tiebreaking play Saturday was a 61-yard punt return by North Carolina's Ryan Switzer with 4:46 left. It was his second of the day in front of a mostly heartbroken crowd of 50,049 at Heinz Field.
Pitt's dramatic rally included 24 unanswered points in less than one quarter and led to a 27-27 tie with 8:52 left. It was fueled by Savage and wide receiver Devin Street, who suffered knee and ankle injuries that briefly forced them from the game but couldn't keep them on the sideline.
Not even their inspiration was enough.
Savage threw touchdown passes of 33 and 8 yards to Street and running back Isaac Bennett, Hendricks and free safety Ray Vinopal recovered fumbles that led to 10 points and the defense finally found a way to stop North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams.
In the first half, Williams ran nine times for 60 yards and two touchdowns, once running into the end zone while easily avoiding cornerback Lafayette Pitts' attempt at a tackle.
“The guys responded and gave each other different lifts,” said coach Paul Chryst, who took no credit for a halftime pep talk. “We just didn't do enough over the course of the game.”
The first-half hole into which Pitt fell was too deep.
It included two Savage fumbles — he also lost one in the third quarter that led to a North Carolina field goal — and an inability to gain 1 yard on fourth down from the Tar Heels' 26 with 1:10 left.
Freshman James Conner, who ended up with 102 yards on 19 carries, lost a yard on the game's most important snap.
It happened while Pitt was trying to rally again following Switzer's second punt return. The Panthers' offensive line — missing injured starters Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King — couldn't stop penetration from a North Carolina defense that was last in the ACC at stopping the run.
Chryst has been around for less than two seasons, but even he seems weary of it all.
“We have to make a pledge to truly look at ourselves, what we can do better,” he said. “It's how we respond to this. We have to own this one.”
Note: The ACC announced that Pitt's game against Miami on Nov. 29 at Heinz Field will be at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ABC.