If Pitt is looking for a new rivalry, or some new history with a new conference opponent, they may have taken a closer step.
The Panthers lost to the Tar Heels 34-27. It wasn't a decisive win for either team, at the same time it wasn't a definitive win for either team until the final whistle.
"Certainly give North Carolina credit," head coach Paul Chryst said afterwards. "They beat us. They made more plays than we did. Obviously, we didn't do a very good job in the first half. We didn't get it done."
Pitt started off hot of the gate on its first two series, before North Carolina stormed back to take a 24-3 lead at halftime. Pitt, staged a comeback in the second half, tying the game late in the fourth quarter, before the Tar Heels regained the lead on a second punt return for a touchdown.
Scoring on a pair of punt returns for touchdowns was Ryan Switzer, who set a new North Carolina record for most punts returned for a touchdown in a game, and with three on the season, set a new season record as well. He totaled 126 yards on three punt returns.
"We knew Ryan Switzer was a good returner," Chryst added. "I think we had enough levels of coverage to stop long returns. We tried to spread the net, but it wasn't much of a net. They made plays and obviously we didn't. We talked about intentionally kicking it out of bounds, but that's a double-edged sword."
North Carolina improves to 5-5, 4-3 in the ACC, and leapfrogging ahead of Pitt in the Coastal Division standings, and in the bowl pecking order of it comes to that. Pitt falls to 5-5 overall, and while they're still in striking range of a bowl bid, the margin for error becomes slimmer with just two games remaining.
Marquise Williams, as he has done throughout the course of North Carolina's four-game winning streak, did most of the damage with his legs, rushing for a pair of touchdowns.
On the opposite side, it was another defensive end having a big-time performance against Pitt--something that's been a constant theme this season. Today, it was Kareem Martin, who finished with eight tackles and 3.5 sacks. Overall, the North Carolina defense finished with seven sacks--its best performance of the season.
Both teams coughed the ball up twice, and each committed seven penalties.
Pitt took the opening drive 51 yards in ten plays, getting a 28-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt to gain the early 3-0 lead.
On its second offensive series of the game, Pitt still looked like the more focused team. Instead of a couple of big passing plays, it was the pounding of running back Conner.
North Carolina punted the ball to the Pitt 15. Conner went right up the middle, once for eight yards, and another for 15. Then, Savage went over the middle to Manasseh Garner for a gain of 16, using a power running game to set up the pass.
Carolina's speed on defense was giving the offensive line troubles early. Pitt was able to counter it was its physical style of play.
"He's earning his keep, he ran hard," Chryst said. "He's got some things still going on. We were a little bit inconsistent running the ball, but it wasn't his fault."
It looked as if Pitt was going to march in for another score, especially after North Carolina defensive back Tim Scott was called for pass interference, after tripping Boyd in the end zone. The 15-yard penalty resulted in a first-and-10 at the Tar Heel 12.
That's when Martin made a gamechanging play. Martin sacked Savage for the second time of the game--in one quarter--and stripped Savage of the ball. The Tar Heels recovered, and saved themselves from Pitt adding another score. Even though Pitt did get a field goal, and they were having early success moving the ball, Pitt was held without a touchdown in two trips to the red zone.
Marquise Williams answered for the Tar Heels, running it in from 12 yards out, capping off a 13-play, 76-yard drive, that included a 14-yard completion to Ryan Switzer on a fourth-and-nine at the Pitt 21.
Fittingly, the first quarter ended with Savage being sacked for a third time. Pitt trailed 7-3 after the first 15 minutes.
Carolina marched down the field again, The big play of the drive, a personal foul, late hit penalty on Darryl Render. It gave the Tarheels 12 yards and a first-and-ten at the Pitt 11. They couldn't punch it in, in the red zone. The closest they got was a third down incompletion, Williams overthrowing Eric Ebron in the end zone.
Thomas Moore hit a 26-yard field goal to make it a 10-3 lead for the Heels, capping a 10-play, 53-yard drive.
North Carolina added to the lead, as Williams took it in from 10 yards out for his second touchdown of the game. It took just 2:49 for the Tar Heels to go 90 yards in eight plays. Williams scrambled out of the pocket, and found space, needing to juke just one defender at the three yard-line, before crossing the goal line.
The drive was highlighted by a 53-yard pass play to Ebron, who on the first play of the drive, got his team to the Pitt 32 yard-line. Nothing special about it, or complex. Williams found Ebron over the middle, who was able to break away from the rest of the Pitt defense, before Lafayette Pitts caught up with him.
North Carolina led 17-3 with 5:12 left in the first half.
The mistakes continued to pile up for Pitt, on offense. After 125 yards on 16 plays to start the game--its first two drives--the following two drives produced eight yards in nine plays. Its fifth drive of the game, following Williams' second rushing score of the day, Pitt started with a false start. Things didn't get any better. Facing pressure from the Tar Heels' front four, Savage rolled out to his left and tried to get rid of the ball. Unfortunately, he was flagged for intentional grounding.
To put the icing on the cake, Savage was sacked for a third time by Martin.
Luckily, the Pitt defense didn't have to answer the call, as Ryan Switzer returned the ensuing punt 65 yards for a touchdown. After one of their best starts of the season, it was not only a complete momentum swing, it was the complete opposite of the spectrum in terms of how this game started.
On Pitt's final drive of the half, Savage continued to take a beating. He was hurried by Malik Simmons and Norkeithus Otis, landing hard on his left knee. He was able to come our the field on his own power, gingerly. Chad Voytik came on for the final three plays of the half, as North Carolina took a 24-3 lead into halftime.
Savage returned for the start of the third quarter. Carolina's defense continued to get to him. He was sacked for the sixth time of the game, this time by Martin and Darius Lipford. Martin stripped Savage of the ball, and the Tar Heels took over at the Pitt 12. North Carolina led 27-3, barely five minutes into the third quarter.
"We wanted to make sure he was good and he wasn't just saying yes and going through the channels," Chryst said. "The last guy you want to talk to about an injury is the player. Let's find how he was doing. He felt good. We didn't want to add any added risk to Tom. We felt pretty confident about that. Once you get all that information, you ask him and he tells you he's good and he goes."
Pitt did get its first touchdown of the game in the third quarter. Savage hit Devin Street for a 33-yard touchdown pass, but it was still a 17-point deficit. Interestingly, Juantez Hollins replaced Dorian Johnson at left tackle on this drive.
After stopping North Carolina on its following drive, Pitt went back to Conner--something we saw a lot of on the opening drive, but not so much since then. Conner carried it five times for 47 yards on the drive, leading to a big fourth-and-2 at the North Carolina 27. Manasseh Garner came up with a big catch on that fourth down play, making the catch right at the marker, then turning ahead and bowling over another defender to get the ball to the Tar Heel 8.
Issac Bennett scored two plays later, an eight-yard touchdown catch from Savage. Pitt trailed 27-17 with 13:28 left.
And just as North Carolina got the ball back, they fumbled it away, recovered by Pitt at the Tar Heel 28. Though they couldn't get in the end zone, Blewitt was able to add a 42-yarder, which brought Pitt to within a touchdown, 27-20, with just under ten minutes remaining in the game.
"I was just going for the tackle, and he happened to have the ball right out in front of his body," safety Ray Vinopal said. "So I figured I might as well go for it."
"We just brought the emotion we had from the Notre Dame game," Hendricks added. "We started off flat in the first half. We rallied guys together at halftime. We had to make the decision of whether we were going to fold or come back with attitude. We decided to come back with attitude but we fell short."
Conner bulldozed into the end zone from two yards out, tying the score at 27-27, with 8:52 left in the game.
But as if Switzer's earlier punt return wasn't enough damage, he gave his team a potential game-winner with a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown, with just under five minutes remaining in the game.
Pitt drove to the North Carolina 26 on its final series of the game. Conner, who ran well all day, was stopped for a loss of one by the Carolina defense, on a fourth-and-one. The Tar Heels took over on downs, with 1:44 to play.
"It's not tough to get back up," Conner said. "We lost to Florida State and then came back against New Mexico. We still have two more games left. We have Syracuse and Miami."