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Familiar feel for Pitt fans after latest loss to North Carolina

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 7:06 p.m.

Football players come and go at Pitt. Transfer in, transfer out. Some (too many) are dismissed for misconduct. Many graduate and enjoy productive careers in the NFL and elsewhere.

Still, the result is always the same: Build up the hopes of your fan base, many of whom are just waiting for something bad to happen. Shoot down those hopes faster than it took to get everyone excited.

Coaches: Same thing.

• Dave Wannstedt: Start 9-1 in 2009, lose to West Virginia and Cincinnati by a total of four points (the latter after leading, 31-10). Settle for a second-place tie in the Big East.

• Paul Chryst: Courageously drag No. 3 Notre Dame into three overtimes at South Bend in 2012. Lose by the slim margin of a 33-yard missed field-goal attempt to a team that eventually played in the national championship game. Then, the following week, fall flat to a 3-6 Connecticut team on a four-game losing streak.

• Pat Narduzzi: You saw it Thursday night. With a bowl bid within reasonable reach, Pitt lost to North Carolina, whose only previous victory in nine games was against Old Dominion. A kickoff return for a touchdown (just like Cincy, '09, remember?), a fumble at the worst moment, a blown fourth-quarter lead for the second consecutive year against North Carolina.

It hurt, but the good news is running back Darrin Hall and safety Jordan Whitehead, Pitt's best players on either side of the ball Thursday, weren't afraid to hold themselves accountable for the loss.

Whitehead shared the team lead in tackles (10) with linebacker Saleem Brightwell, but his failure to break up a 40-yard pass to North Carolina wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams led to a touchdown and a 14-3 deficit in the first quarter.

Whitehead was in position and got a hand on the ball but lost the battle.

“I kind of tipped it back to him, and he made a great play,” he said. “I could have played better defense on that. We were there, calls were good. It just came down to making the play.”

Later in the first half, Ratliff-Williams' touchdown pass off a reverse was a play that Pitt coaches cautioned their players to anticipate.

“On the sideline, we were talking about it,” Whitehead said. “Just be aware for a trick play coming up.”

Didn't matter. Josh Cabrera was wide open for a 35-yard touchdown catch.

Pitt's best play on offense was simply allowing quarterback Ben DiNucci to stick the ball in Hall's belly. For the third consecutive game, Hall hit triple digits (121 yards rushing). He added four touchdown runs, matching what James Conner did to North Carolina three years ago in a five-point loss in Chapel Hill.

But, with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the holes in the Tar Heels' run defense closed.

After taking a 31-27 on Hall's 1-yard burst early in the fourth quarter and forcing a missed North Carolina field goal try, Pitt had the ball with a chance to kill time. Hall, however, was dropped for a 1-yard loss, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson abandoned the run. An incomplete pass and sack later, Pitt punted.

Then, after North Carolina regained the lead, 34-31, Pitt could have forced overtime with a field goal. With 6:18 left, however, Pitt didn't need to settle. There was plenty of time to win with the running game.

Again, Hall was dropped for a 1-yard loss, his final rushing attempt of the night. North Carolina loaded the box with eight defenders to stop the run, and Pitt couldn't adjust.

“Honestly, I probably missed a read,” Hall said. “I probably should have bounced it outside.”

DiNucci did complete two passes for 17 yards, but another sack — this one on a play that started on the edge of field-goal range at midfield — changed everything.

After two incomplete passes and a punt, Pitt never touched the ball again.

Amidst the wreckage of another disappointing defeat, this question remains:

Do the Panthers have another 13-9 in them? Pitt ruined West Virginia's national title hopes in 2007 with a historic victory in Morgantown. This year, Pitt closes the season against No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 7 and undefeated Miami. If Pitt (4-6, 2-4) loses both, the finished product would be the worst overall record since 1998 (2-9), two years after the second Johnny Majors era.

“This is not the end of our season,” DiNucci said. “We got the ability in that locker room, and guys know it, to go and be able to hang with these two teams.”

Pitt fans are historically and painfully aware that hanging in there isn't the same as winning.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi reacts to a referee in the fourth quarter against  North Carolina Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi reacts to a referee in the fourth quarter against North Carolina Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
North Carolina's Anthony ratliff-Williams splits Pitt defenders Philipie Motley (32) and Oluwaseun Idowu in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
North Carolina's Anthony ratliff-Williams splits Pitt defenders Philipie Motley (32) and Oluwaseun Idowu in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
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