Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Pitt disappoints in deflating loss to North Carolina
1. A conversation moments before the start of the nationally televised Pitt-North Carolina game Thursday night at Heinz Field had one writer wondering why teams bother to return kickoffs when they rarely get to the 25-yard line.
Meantime, I couldn't help but question the decision of Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, after winning the coin toss, to defer to the second half when the Panthers have one of the nation's top return specialists in Quadree Henderson, whose seven career kick return touchdowns are two shy of the NCAA record.
My rationale: It's a coaching control-freak thing. Offensive coaches would prefer to take a touchback and get the ball at the 25 rather than risk worse field position. Risk-averse defensive coaches would rather have the ball at the start of the second half.
Safe to say, we were both left speechless when Anthony Ratliff-Williams took the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to give the Tar Heels a 7-0 lead only 16 seconds into the first quarter.
It was a sure sign to throw logic out the window in this game.
2. Narduzzi's decision to defer appeared to backfire, as North Carolina held Pitt to an Alex Kessman 42-yard field goal and added a five-play, 66-yard scoring drive capped by Nathan Elliott's 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Fritts for a 14-3 lead.
But Pitt's defense came up with a big play to spark a comeback.
On a third-and-9 at the Tar Heels' 14, Pitt outside linebacker Sean Idowu sacked Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott for a 6-yard loss to the 8. That forced a punt to the Pitt 49.
After catching a 30-yard pass to the Carolina 7, Darrin Hall scored his first of four touchdowns. The Panthers took advantage of a punt that sailed out at the Carolina 38, with Maurice Ffrench taking an end-around 20 yards to set up Hall's second touchdown on a 1-yard run for a 17-14 lead.
3. Just when Pitt appeared to seize momentum, Josh Cabrera and Ratliff-Williams took turns torturing the Panthers.
On third-and-4 at the Carolina 29, Cabrera caught a 9-yard pass for a first down. On third-and-10 at the Pitt 48, Ratliff-Williams caught a 9-yarder to set up a fourth-and-1 toss to Michael Carter for another first down.
On the next play, Ratliff-Williams took a flea-flicker and threw a 35-yard scoring pass to Cabrera to give the Tar Heels a 21-17 lead.
But the biggest play came after Carolina was called for pass interference, giving the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 5. Pitt appeared poised to take a lead into halftime when Henderson took an inside handoff on a sweep but was stripped at the goal line by strong safety J.K. Britt. The ball was recovered in the end zone by linebacker Cayson Collins, who returned it 66 yards to the Pitt 34.
Four plays later, Freeman Jones kicked a 51-yard field goal with 30 seconds left to give the Tar Heels a 24-17 halftime lead, a 10-point swing that would prove disastrous.
Suddenly, it became a good thing that Pitt was receiving the kickoff to start the second half.
4. What a revelation Hall, a 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior from Youngstown, has been for the Panthers.
Hall barely played in the first six games, but after rushing for 121 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries against North Carolina, he now has delivered James Conner-like production: Three consecutive 100-yard games and nine touchdowns in the past four games, not to mention a school-record 92-yard scoring run at Duke.
Hall's fourth touchdown came only after a video review ruled him down at the 1 on a 14-yard run. Two plays later, he scored on a 1-yarder to give the Panthers a 31-27 lead at 13 minutes, 15 seconds of the fourth quarter.
If only Hall, like Conner, could play defense, too.
5. This was a must-win for Pitt to have any hope of a bowl game.
The Panthers had back-to-back wins against Duke and Virginia, and a victory over Carolina would have evened their record at 5-5 overall, 3-3 in the ACC, with remaining games against a pair of top-25 teams in No. 17 Virginia Tech (7-2) and No. 7 Miami (8-0).
But the Panthers gave up the go-ahead touchdown on a 3-yard pass to Ratliff-Williams, who finished with 195 all-purpose yards, for a 34-31 lead with 6:18 to play. Pitt had a chance to stop the Tar Heels deep in their own territory but allowed Jordon Brown to break a 23-yarder on a second-and-18 at his own 29 so Carolina could run out the clock.
Let this sink in: Pitt lost to a North Carolina team whose only win was at Old Dominion on Sept. 16.
It was another case of Pitt failing to live up to a big opportunity. No wonder Pitt is 8-15 in ESPN's Thursday night games, including 1-3 against ACC opponents. The Panthers also lost by three points to Virginia Tech on an ESPN Thursday last year, a game that could have kept them in contention for the Coastal Division title.
Given what was on the line and the opponent, this is as bad a home loss Pitt has had since it joined the ACC and one that could break the Panthers' nine-year run of bowl bids.
A season that started with Pitt having ACC championship hopes is down to this: The Panthers have to play spoiler by beating both Virginia Tech on Nov. 18 in Blacksburg and Miami on Nov. 24 at Heinz Field just to have a shot at a bowl game.
If Pitt can't beat a one-win Carolina at home, don't hold your breath for that to happen.