Three decades later, loss in North Carolina still stings Panthers
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Exactly 30 years ago this week, the Pitt football team traveled to North Carolina to play an ACC school.
The result was a devastating 17-7 loss at UNC on Sept. 22, 1979 that all but ruined any hopes of another national title for a talented Pitt team that would vanquish every other opponent to finish 11-1.
Three decades later - with undefeated Pitt (3-0) set to travel to Tobacco Road again, this time to play at N.C. State (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday - that sloppy, turnover-plagued loss to the unranked Tar Heels still haunts members of the 1979 Panthers.
"We overlooked them," said Rich Kraynak, 48, of Harrisburg, a future NFL linebacker who was a freshman special-teams player on the '79 team. "We were already a powerhouse. North Carolina was like a fly on our shoulder that we should have swatted away."
The loss dented any chance at a second national crown in four years for the Panthers. Pitt won its next 10 games, including victories against No. 12 Washington (road), No. 17 Navy and No. 20 Penn State (road). The Panthers capped the season with a 16-10 victory over unranked Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl on Christmas Day.
But the Week 2 loss to the Tar Heels and junior linebacker Lawrence Taylor was too much to overcome. Pitt, which dropped out the AP poll for a month, fought back to end the season ranked No. 7 in the nation.
"What I remember about that game is the locker room was about 110 degrees," starting right guard Emil Boures said. "They put silver lining down on our sideline (to reflect the sun), and we had guys getting IVs all game."
Added defensive end Greg Meisner. ""It was like you were in an oven. We weren't out of shape. We just weren't prepared for that type of heat."
All-America linebacker Hugh Green missed most of the second half with cramps and after the game sat inconsolable on the trainer's table.
"All the big, powerful guys started to cramp up," linebacker Rickey Jackson said. "We would have gone all the way, but we slipped up and lost one game."
The consequences were clear.
Only Alabama (12-0) and USC (11-0-1) would finish the year without a loss. Who knows• Without the hiccup at Chapel Hill, it could have been Pitt rather than sixth-ranked Arkansas meeting eventual national champion Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Instead, the Panthers were left to ponder what could have been.
"There is no reason we shouldn't have beaten North Carolina in 1979," Kraynak said. "None whatsoever. It was one those games that was a gimme."
In front of 50,000 at sweltering Kenan Stadium, No. 13-ranked Pitt committed seven turnovers - four interceptions and three fumbles - and dealt with lousy field position all game. UNC's Steve Streater averaged 41.3 yards on 13 punts. Pitt started 11 drives inside its own 23.
The Panthers trailed 14-0 at halftime. A 13-yard touchdown pass from Rick Trocano to Kenny Bowles cut the Tar Heel lead to 14-7, but North Carolina kicked a field goal early in the fourth quarter for the final score.
Trocano, who would lose his job to freshman Dan Marino later in the season after injuring a hamstring, threw for 204 yards and was intercepted three times.
North Carolina's Amos Lawrence and Kelvin Bryant combined to rush for 149 yards on 40 carries, while Pitt fullback Randy McMillan managed only 34 rushing yards.
It was the first of three consecutive 11-1 seasons for Pitt, with lone losses to Florida State in 1980 and Penn State in 1981 denying possible national titles.
To this day, the former Pitt players still wonder how a team with at least 15 future NFL starters was upset at North Carolina.
"If we played them 100 times," Meisner said, "we'd beat them 99 times."
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