Pitt ends Carolina Curse in overtime thriller, 34-27

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Pitt ends Carolina Curse in overtime thriller, 34-27

Pitt's players celebrate in the student section after beating North Carolina on Thursday night.

Pitt's players celebrate in the student section after beating North Carolina on Thursday night.

Sarah Cutshall | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt's players celebrate in the student section after beating North Carolina on Thursday night.

Sarah Cutshall | Assistant Visual Editor

Sarah Cutshall | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt's players celebrate in the student section after beating North Carolina on Thursday night.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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Pitt football’s Thursday-night matchup with UNC ended, as their six previous ACC games did, with a single-digit margin of victory. 

But there was one key difference — the team that attained that margin of victory.

It was no secret coming into the Panthers’ (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) primetime contest at Heinz Field that they had previously struggled against the Tar Heels (4-6 overall, 3-4 ACC), losing to them all six times since joining the ACC in 2013. They finally ended that streak in an overtime thriller, besting UNC 34-27 on the strength of an improved offensive performance.

“It’s a good football team and, yeah, I guess the monkey is off the back. It’s a win,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Pitt junior quarterback Kenny Pickett played arguably the best game of his career, completing 25 of 41 passes for 359 yards — his second-highest yardage total ever — and a touchdown while adding 12 carries for 53 yards and two touchdowns.

“Kenny was outstanding,” Narduzzi said. “He was on target. I don’t think he had a bad pass.”

Pickett was forced to rely on some new targets with team receptions leader Maurice Ffrench sidelined with a broken jaw, and sophomore wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis and first-year Jared Wayne both turning in career days.

Jacques-Louis finished with four catches for 104 yards and a touchdown while Wayne, the first true freshman to start for Pitt all season, caught four balls for 30 yards.

Pitt’s defense turned in another great effort even against first-year phenom quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 322 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. The Panthers sacked Howell five times, putting them in sole position at No. 1 in the country for that statistic.

The Panthers’ first possession showed a flaw that has plagued them all season long — an inability to score touchdowns in opposing territory. Pitt cruised from its own 39-yard line to the opposing 23, but failed to convert on a third-and-4. Narduzzi sent out the field goal unit and redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman drilled the 41-yard attempt to put the Panthers up 3-0 early.

UNC’s offense responded quickly, moving to Pitt’s 21 in just five plays. From there, Howell lofted a pass to junior receiver Beau Corrales in the right corner of the end zone, which he impressively caught over a Pitt defender to put the Tar Heels up 7-3.

Pitt’s offense again looked much-improved on its second drive. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple must’ve decided to open up the playbook during the off week, because Pickett launched several deep balls throughout the game. On first down he found redshirt junior Taysir Mack on a 48-yard bomb that moved Pitt to the UNC 27.

But after getting as far as the 7-yard line, the Panthers again faced a fourth down. This time, Narduzzi elected to go for it. The decision didn’t pay off, as a goal-line fade attempt from Pickett to Mack was broken up by redshirt first-year defensive back DeAndre Hollins.

And so, Pitt finished the first quarter still trailing 7-3.

But the Panthers strung together another quality drive to start the second quarter, and it appeared they had their first touchdown of the game when Pickett found Jacques-Louis for an incredible bobbling catch as he fell to the ground. 

Upon further review, however, refs ruled that the ball hit the turf and reversed the touchdown call. The fans booed in outrage but it didn’t matter, as Pickett scored on a two-yard quarterback keeper three plays later to put Pitt up 10-7.

Pitt’s defense continued to dominate on the other side of the ball, sacking Howell twice in the second quarter and not allowing UNC’s offense to make any progress.

After Pitt got the ball back, it didn’t take long for Jacques-Louis to avenge his stolen touchdown. He blew past the Tar Heel defense on first down, catching a deep Pickett pass in stride and taking it the rest of the way for a 75-yard touchdown — and this time, it stood. That one reception nearly matched his previous season total of 88 yards.

In the remaining 9:41 of the first half, UNC tacked on three points with a 25-yard field goal, while Kessman uncharacteristically missed a 26-yard attempt of his own. On the Tar Heels’ final drive of the half, Pitt senior defensive back Damar Hamlin was called for targeting after helmet-to-helmet hit while breaking up a pass attempt. The call held up after review, and he was ejected from the game.

Pitt finished the first half up 17-10, halfway to breaking its long-standing UNC curse.

To start the second half, the Panthers finally punted for the first time all game. UNC responded with a 10-play, 43-yard drive that ended with a punt of its own.

Needing at least three points to widen its lead, Pitt responded with its most complete drive of the game. Led by a chunk of positive runs from junior running back A.J. Davis and a couple catches from Wayne, the Panthers moved methodically downfield. Davis capped off the 14-play, 85-yard march with an eight-yard touchdown score to put his team up 24-10, a score that held up entering the fourth quarter.

Not to spare any drama, Pitt began to falter on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heels moved downfield easier than they had all night, pulling back within a touchdown on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Howell to sophomore receiver Dyami Brown.

With that touchdown, the momentum swung noticeably toward UNC. Pitt went three-and-out with three straight incompletions on its next possession, then backed itself up 10 more yards on consecutive penalties. 

Starting with great field position at his own 43-yard line after the punt, Howell continued to show what makes him one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the nation. On second-and-3 he launched a perfectly placed pass into the hands of junior receiver Dazz Newsome for a 34-yard touchdown, tying the game at 24-24 with 11:43 left in the game.

Pickett made two clutch third-down completions to keep the chains moving on Pitt’s next drive. But his luck ran out on third-and-6 from the UNC 10, as he could only find Mack for a four-yard gain. Kessman came out for the easy 24-yard kick to put Pitt ahead by a field goal.

On the ensuing drive, Howell channeled his inner Tom Brady by coming up with big completion after big completion. On third-and-3, he forced a Pitt pass interference penalty to stay alive. Backed up by a sack on second-and-16, he found Newsome for a 27-yard gain, then again for an 13-yard gain on third-and-11. It seemed like Howell could do no wrong and Pitt was destined for its seventh straight loss to UNC.

But Howell’s powers finally faded on third-and-12 from the Pitt 15, as his attempt to Corrales fell incomplete. UNC sophomore kicker Noah Ruggles netted the 32-yard attempt with 13 seconds left to send the game into overtime.

Pitt got the ball first in overtime with 25 yards between the ball and the end zone. The period didn’t start well, with a false start penalty backing the Panthers up for a third-and-14.

But Pickett stepped up to make his most vital completion of the night, a 15-yard pass to Mack across the middle that just barely crossed the first-down marker.

Three plays later, Pickett barrelled his way into the end zone off a read-option keeper to give Pitt the go-ahead score.

Facing a fourth-and-4, Howell kept his magic alive by finding Newsome for the duo’s 11th connection of the game. Three downs later, Pitt redshirt sophomore Jalen Twyman sacked Howell to set up a do-or-die fourth-and-16 for the Tar Heels.

Facing pressure from redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre, Howell’s final pass attempt fell incomplete in the end zone, breaking once and for all the dreaded Carolina Curse.

Pitt’s next test comes next Saturday against Virginia Tech, on the road at Blacksburg.

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