Pitt ends skid against North Carolina with wild OT victory
When the band stopped playing and Heinz Field was nearly empty after Pitt’s tense 34-27 overtime victory, Jaylen Twyman turned to his older teammate, senior cornerback Dane Jackson, in one of those private locker room moments and put Thursday night in perspective.
“It’s all for you, bro,” he said.
Finally, after seven tries as an ACC member, Pitt defeated North Carolina in a game that had a little bit of everything and a lot of big plays.
“I felt it was personal for the seniors,” said Twyman, a sophomore who had 2 ½ of Pitt’s five sacks, including a huge one in overtime. “I really wanted to get this win for those guys.
“There were a lot of guys who have been here five and four years who have never beaten North Carolina and I was moreso playing for them, instead of playing for myself.
“Our underclassmen and our juniors definitely pulled the monkey off their backs. They get to sleep at night.”
In the big picture, the Panthers are 7-3 for the first time since 2015 (coach Pat Narduzzi’s first season) and 4-2 in the conference, only one-half game behind first-place Virginia.
A loss would have eliminated Pitt in the race for the ACC Coastal championship, but Twyman, wide receivers Shocky Jacques Louis and Taysir Mack and quarterback Kenny Pickett stepped up early and late to keep those hopes alive.
It was Pickett, who made the biggest plays, scoring on 2- and 3-yard runs (the latter in overtime when he convinced offensive coordinator Mark Whipple he could beat slip past the North Carolina defensive end). He also completed 25 of 41 passes for 359 yards and a 74-yard touchdown (tied for the longest this season) to Jacques-Louis.
Then, there was overtime when Pitt, with the first possession, faced third-and-14 from the Tar Heels 29. He found Mack cutting across the middle of the field for 15 yards. Pickett scored the decisive touchdown three plays later.
“A play we repped a lot this week,” Pickett said. “I saw the corner sitting outside, so I wanted to make sure I threaded it on his back hip so he doesn’t get laid out by that guy. He did a great job of fighting for the first down.”
Pickett’s best trick, though, might have been keeping everyone calm and focused in the huddle during the ninth Pitt game this season decided by 10 points or fewer.
“I was really proud of Kenny,” said center Jimmy Morrissey, the junior captain. “He was a field general. I love playing for Kenny. He plays hard. He puts his body on the line.”
Added Jacques-Louis: “As long as he keeps doing what he’s been doing, we’re going to be all right.”
“My heart’s beating when I’m on the bench, watching the defense,” Pickett said. “When I’m out there, it’s kind of like you lock back in. I’m really calm and all the guys focus on the drive.
“It got real chippy and that’s when the competitor in me comes out and I think it comes out in the rest of the team. “There’s really just one goal in mind when we’re out there, so there really are no nerves.”
Jacques-Louis, who caught four passes for 104 yards, said he felt no nervousness with the game and Pitt’s season at stake.
“We are just doing what we were doing since we were born, just playing the game,” he said. “It might get a little tense, but we try to not feel the intensity.
“Just go out there and still have fun, knowing it’s a close game, but still keeping our composure so we can make big plays.”
Pitt opened the game without senior and leading pass catcher Maurice Ffrench (broken jaw) and lost senior safety Damar Hamlin in the second quarter when he was ejected for targeting.
Two big pieces of Pitt’s puzzle turned into spectators, and – in the case of Hamlin – Narduzzi didn’t like it. Hamlin is the third Pitt player ejected for targeting this season, joining safety Paris Ford and linebacker Phil Campbell.
“Probably the play of the game,” said Narduzzi, not apologizing for his hyperbole, “was when (Hamlin) went for an interception and they called targeting.
“Which, I guess, I don’t know what targeting is anymore. A guy’s got his arms out looking for the ball.”
With Hamlin not playing the second half, North Carolina turned a 24-10 Pitt lead into 24-24 on two touchdown passes by Tar Heels freshman quarterback Sam Howell.
“If Damar is playing the whole game, we probably don’t go overtime, I can tell you that,” Narduzzi said. “He’s special out there at the free safety spot, and not having him really hurt us in the second half.
And in a shot at the officials, he said, “We had a couple victories out there, one against UNC and we’ll leave it at that.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .