Tar Heels' big plays too much for No. 23 Pitt

A pair of big plays for North Carolina in the second quarter were too much for No. 23 Pitt to overcome in a 26-19 loss Thursday at Heinz Field.

At face value, a 26-19 loss doesn't look bad. A one-score decision implies a close game, one that usually comes down to the final possession. 

In a sense it did, as an onside-kick recovery would've afforded Pitt the chance to tie the game with 41 seconds to play. But the Tar Heels (7-1, 4-0 ACC) recovered, kneeled out a win over the No. 23-ranked Panthers (6-2, 4-1) and moved into sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division. 

What the seven-point margin doesn't show is the 17-point lead Pitt faced at halftime on the back of two long touchdown passes by Marquise Williams in the second quarter. He hooked up with Ryan Switzer from 71 yards out then found Mack Hollins over the middle for a 32-yard score. 

Two plays created the separation North Carolina needed and Pitt couldn't overcome a 20-3 halftime deficit.  

"We had people where they’re supposed to be," Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. "When the guy’s back there sucking on the ball for six seconds, it’s a little bit of both."

Williams had enough time in the pocket to do what he wanted against Pitt, for the most part, especially in the second. The 71-yard pass to Switzer came just after Shakir Soto penetrated the backfield and ended up with only a fistful of facemask instead of a sack. 

Nine minutes later Williams looked over the middle and found Hollins, who was isolated against Lafayette Pitts on the left side. Hollins made his cut, shook his man and crossed the goal line after hauling in the pass. 

Williams finished with 270 yards passing and threw for North Carolina's only two touchdowns.. He rushed nine times for 52 yards.

Nick Weiler put the finishing touches on the victory with four field goals.  

"It looked like we had the first read taken away a couple times but when he’s back there, eventually someone’s going to get open," Narduzzi said. "You can’t cover him forever."

When Williams had so much time in the backfield it increased the degree of difficulty for Jordan Whitehead and others on the back end to finish plays. 

"I think it was a lot of time and then we’ve got to finish plays," Whitehead said. "We were kind of like relaxed when they had those long plays, we kind of relaxed. But ball’s in the air, we need to make a play."

Even when Pitt managed to pressure Williams, the Panthers didn't finish plays. Narduzzi estimated his team left four sacks on the field by failing to capitalize on such chances. 

"He’s completing balls after we miss a sack," Narduzzi said. "We can’t hang our secondary out there. We struggled in the first half getting four-man pressure and we struggled a little to get zone pressure on him."

As a result, Pitt finished with zero sacks for the second week in a row and had only one in the win at Georgia Tech two games ago. The last three weeks stand in stark contrast to the first five games in which Pitt led the ACC in sacks. 

"The last three weeks we’ve missed sacks and you can’t miss sacks," Narduzzi said, "you’ve got to put them behind the sticks when you get a chance."

Pitt managed to do that once, but North Carolina converted on a 3rd and 12 anyway. The Panthers recorded only two tackles for loss Thursday. 

Alongside Williams, Elijah Hood carried 20 times for 107 yards and the Tar Heels ripped off multiple long gains. When the Panthers couldn't pressure, North Carolina gashed them and the two occurrences in the second quarter made the difference. 

"We’ve just got to be locked in on defense each and every play," middle linebacker Matt Galambos said. "Try to eliminate the explosive plays, come back, watch it and try to get better from it."

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