It’s hard to lead in a game for over 55 minutes and lose, but somehow, someway, the Pittsburgh Panthers did just that. Once again, they failed to beat archnemesis North Carolina, in what could prove to be the most pivotal ACC Coastal Division game of the year.
After kicking a field goal with just over 11 minutes remaining and occupying the driver’s seat at 36-23, Pittsburgh fell asleep at the wheel, allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the final one with two seconds left on the clock, and lost, 37-36.
Through the first 48 minutes of the contest, Pittsburgh dominated just about every meaningful statistic. At that juncture, the Panthers had controlled the ball for 75 percent of the game, racking up 275 rushing yards.
It was also senior quarterback Nathan Peterman’s best game of the year by far. He threw for only 140 yards, but he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and completed 14-of-18 passes. Peterman also avoided any turnovers.
Pittsburgh ran the jet sweep to perfection the entire afternoon. Sophomore wide receiver Quadree Henderson led the team with 107 rushing yards on nine carries. Freshman tailback Chawntez Moss also shined, gaining 47 yards on the ground with just seven attempts.
Redshirt junior James Conner was the workhorse with 16 carries, but he averaged only 4.1 yards per rush. His impact was felt in the passing game, though, where he caught four passes for 64 yards. Conner led the team with 130 yards from scrimmage.
This three-headed rushing attack — combined with Peterman’s effective, short passing game — gave the Panthers offensive balance, but none of it worked in the closing minutes of the fourth stanza. After taking a 13-point lead on a field goal with 11:03 left, Pittsburgh suffered two three-and-outs on its final two possessions, which gained just six total yards.
For all the impressive stats posted by the Panthers’ rushing attack, failing to run out the clock when the team needed it most is inexcusable. The best running games reel off first downs even when the opposition knows a running play is coming. Just one first down on either of those two final drives could have made a difference.
The only thing worse than the Pittsburgh running attack in the fourth quarter was its defense. North Carolina drove the ball 45 yards and then 63 yards for two touchdowns inside the last eight minutes of the game, with all of those yards but three coming through the air.
The Tar Heels also managed to convert three fourth downs on the final drive. The Panthers registered a first-down sack just past midfield on redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, but they could not get to him on those fourth-down plays. Pittsburgh’s defense played under 20 minutes in the game, so the lack of a pass rush with the game on the line is definitely concerning.
In the secondary, the Panthers couldn’t stop senior receiver Ryan Switzer. He made 16 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown. Switzer had seven catches on the final two scoring drives.
What’s even worse is this game should have been over after the first 30 minutes. Through the first quarter, Pittsburgh held the ball for over 14 minutes, yet led only 5-0. The Panthers scored a touchdown inside the first three minutes of the second quarter and took a 12-point lead, but with the help of a costly fumble just before halftime, the Tar Heels pulled within three at the half.
Failing to take advantage of opportunities in the first half allowed North Carolina to hang around and ultimately come back late.
This is going to be a very tough one to swallow for Pittsburgh. The Panthers were minutes away from their first victory over the Tar Heels since joining the ACC. Last season, a loss to North Carolina was the difference between Pittsburgh finishing second rather than first in the Coastal Division race.
Looking ahead, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the Panthers to win the Coastal now. In back-to-back weeks in November, Pittsburgh will visit Miami and Clemson, which should be two very tough games. North Carolina has road affairs with Miami and Florida State, but the Panthers will have to win the rest of their ACC games and see the Tar Heels lose twice in order to capture the division crown.
Any other ACC losses for Pittsburgh, and they will have to hope North Carolina loses three times. Besides that, the only other way for the Panthers to get to the ACC Championship Game would be via a three-team tie.
More than likely, Pittsburgh will back on this final Saturday in September with incredible regret. A strong foothold on the Coastal Division was within their grasp, and the Panthers let it slip away.