A kickoff returned for a touchdown, a fumble near the goal line and a trick play touchdown may have been the biggest plays of the day Thursday — and they all went against the Panther football team.
A late touchdown by the North Carolina Tar Heels was the final blow to the Panther football team Thursday, but big mistakes throughout the game sealed Pitt’s 34-31 loss.
To open the game, the Panthers gave up a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams.
Ratliff-Williams didn’t just outrun the Panthers special teams unit, he also broke five tackles on the play. Any one of those Panther defenders could’ve brought him down, but instead, Ratliff-Williams capitalized on these missed tackles to put the Tar Heels up 7-0 early.
The game moved back and forth between leads — every time the Panthers trumped the Tar Heels offensively, they couldn’t hold on defensively.
Instead of taking control of the game when they could in the second quarter, the Panthers gave up a trick play 35-yard touchdown pass from Ratliff-Williams to junior wide receiver Josh Cabrera to give back the lead to the Tar Heels, 21-17.
This wasn’t a surprise play to the Panther defense. They were supposedly prepared for a play like this and had been studying tape on previous trick plays from the Tar Heels all week.
“We saw them call a lot of reverse passes, trick plays,” junior defensive back Jordan Whitehead said after the game. “We knew it was coming.”
It wasn’t ignorance that hurt the Panthers on that play, but instead, failed execution on defense that left Cabrera wide-open.
The Panthers bounced back and marched right down the field in their next possession. But yet again, another mistake cost the Panthers.
On first-and-goal from the Tar Heel 5-yard line, junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson rushed the ball to the left and coughed up the ball on the 2-yard line. The Tar Heels recovered and returned the ball into field goal position with a minute left in the half.
Converting a 51-yard field goal to end the half, the Tar Heels benefitted from a 10-point swing. Instead of the Panthers scoring a touchdown to recapture the lead, they gave up a field goal to extend the Tar Heel edge to seven points at 24-17.
By the fourth quarter, the Panthers did manage to retake the lead at 31-27 only to give up a late touchdown to the Tar Heels to put them up 34-31— the final score of the game.
Even though it may be easy to blame the Panther defense for giving up the lead late, they were without senior defensive back Avonte Maddox, leaving them vulnerable through the air.
“I think our corners still played OK, and I think they rushed for less than 100 yards, but we gave up some stuff in the middle,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “It didn’t help that Avonte Maddox is not out there today.”
But the Panthers could have easily avoided a close contest with the Tar Heels by the fourth quarter. The game should’ve been in hand.
The Panthers outgained the Tar Heels 409 yards to 366 yards for the game and dominated on the ground, gaining 267 yards compared to 96 for the Tar Heels.
Hall, specifically, had a tremendous game for the Panthers—carrying the ball for 128 yards and a whopping four touchdowns. Even redshirt sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci ran for more than 100 yards in the game.
This run-heavy statline is the game plan for the Panther offense. They are starting DiNucci as backup quarterback, and Hall has put together a string of three straight 100-yard games. Relying on the running game, in theory, should limit mistakes from the quarterback position while allowing the Panthers to highlight Hall and dominate possession of the ball.
Just accumulating the costs of the three largest Panther missteps led to 17 Tar Heel points — two touchdowns through the kickoff return and trick play, and a field goal off of the Panther fumble.
“No team’s good enough to overcome that stuff, and we certainly aren’t there yet,” Narduzzi said.
Without plays like these, the Panthers generally cruise to victory despite giving up some yards through the air. Instead, the Panthers lost to the worst team in the ACC and now have to beat Virginia Tech and No. 7 Miami to qualify for a bowl game.
For the Panthers to have a shot of winning next Saturday in Blacksburg, Virginia, against Virginia Tech, they have to play a clean game and hope their running game dominates like it did against North Carolina.