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Pitt football plays it too safe against UNC

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Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game. John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game. John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game. John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein and Ashwini Sivaganesh | Sports Editors

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For the third week in a row, the Pitt football team scored more than 35 points against a formidable opponent. But for the second week in a row, the Panthers’ conservative play in the final quarter cost them the game.

The Panthers went into Saturday’s game knowing that a victory against North Carolina — last year’s ACC Coastal Division champion — would set the tone for their ACC season. Instead, it was a repeat of last year.

“We’ve got to stay on the field. That was our goal this week, to stay on the field on third downs,” Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman said at his postgame press conference. “I thought we did a better job of it, up until [the end].”

Last year, UNC defeated Pitt 26-19 in a game that decided who would play for the ACC championship. And this year the Tar Heels topped the Panthers, 37-36, in the opening game of conference play on a touchdown pass in the final moments of play.

Pitt grasped the lead early on, but UNC quickly followed up with their own touchdowns. In the second half, after the Panthers seemed to pick up the pace, senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer carried the Tar Heels to victory with 16 catches for 208 yards and a number of big fourth-down conversions.

The Panthers took over with 8:44 left in the game leading, 36-23. Any sustained scoring drive would have put the game away.

Instead, the offense refused to take risks on big plays and couldn’t rely on Peterman to throw the ball downfield on third-and-long. First-year running back Chawntez Moss and sophomore wide receiver Quadree Henderson picked up two yards each on handoffs, then quarterback Nathan Peterman threw an incompletion on third down.

By the time Pitt punted the ball back to UNC, only 70 seconds had ticked off the clock.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky led the Tar Heels on a scoring drive in just two minutes and 10 seconds, cutting the deficit to only six points with more than five minutes to play. Still, the Panthers had a chance to run out the clock and potentially kick a game-clinching field goal by gaining just a few first downs.

Starting Pitt’s final possession with a 36-30 lead and 5:24 remaining, Peterman handed the ball twice to star running back James Conner for a gain of three and a loss of one. Then, facing third-and-8, he settled for a short dump-off to Conner for no gain, forcing the Panthers to punt after another three-and-out.

Again, less than two minutes elapsed by the time UNC got the ball back.

Pitt never got the ball again, and the Tar Heels — who had never led in the game and trailed for more than 55 minutes — took the lead with two seconds left on a second touchdown pass from Trubisky to 6-foot-5 wide receiver Bug Howard.

“We didn’t do what we could have to control the wind of the game and we [have] to do a better job offensively,” Peterman said. “Third down completions — certain things that need to go better at the end of the game — we’ve got to do better.”

The Panther’s defense also struggled in the last quarter by letting two North Carolina touchdowns occur in the last five and a half minutes of play. While the Panthers have scored over 35 points these past three games, they’ve let their opponents do the same — resulting in back-to-back losses and a 2-2 record after four games.

“Getting off the field on a fourth down or getting a critical first down when we needed it in the fourth quarter — we didn’t do that,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We didn’t take a drive in the fourth quarter and do what we needed to do and you end up coming up short.”

After the four games played this season, it’s clear Pitt can score touchdowns. But if they continue to let quarterbacks and receivers break records against their secondary, it won’t matter how many points the Panthers’ offense scores.

“We were up big time, but we just couldn’t finish,” Henderson said. “It hurts to watch but you [have] to move on.”

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Pitt football plays it too safe against UNC