Column | Panther defense weathers the storm, survives against UNC, 30-23

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Pitt tight end redshirt senior Lucas Krull (7) runs with the ball during Thursday evening’s game against UNC at Heinz Field.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

In a game that embodied classic Coastal Division chaos, Pitt football leaned on its defense in the midst of a torrential downpour to capture victory. The Panthers narrowly escaped defeat, staving off a furious North Carolina rally to win, 30-23, in overtime and keeping their ACC title hopes alive. 

Here are my takeaways from last Thursday’s game. 

Defense led the way

Everybody expected this game to be a shootout, and for good reason. It was a premier matchup at the quarterback position, with more than 30 NFL scouts flocking from all over the country to watch Pitt super senior Kenny Pickett and UNC junior Sam Howell — two of the best quarterbacks in the country. Pickett highlighted the magnitude of the matchup postgame, saying he suspects the two will meet again at the next level.

“[Howell is] one of the best in the country no doubt,” Pickett said. “I told him I don’t think this is the last we will see each other.”

Both quarterbacks flashed brilliance Thursday night, but it came as a shock when the game turned into a defensive battle. The Panthers defense shined, sacking Howell four times in the first half and holding an explosive Tar Heel offense to just seven first-half points. Pickett led the Panthers to 337 first-half yards on offense, and Pitt led 23-7 heading to the locker room. But that still felt underwhelming given the amount of points they left on the table.

It was a tale of two halves for the Pitt offense — which mustered up just 79 yards in the second half and failed to get on the scoreboard. The Panthers’ defense stepped up in the midst of the offense’s uncharacteristic struggles. Pitt held North Carolina to 1-4 on fourth downs, continuing a season-long trend. Head coach Pat Narduzzi joked about how good Pitt’s defense has been on fourth downs and suggested that the opposition punt for the rest of the season.

“I think we are the No. 1 fourth down defense in the country,” Narduzzi said. “I think people should just punt, or do something else.”

North Carolina’s opening drive of the second half stalled on 4th and 1 at the Pitt 23-yard line. Senior linebacker Phil Campbell delivered a punishing blow on Howell — stopping him in his tracks and keeping the deficit at 16. 

The Tar Heels pulled themselves back in the game though, thanks to the short fields a dwindling Pitt offense gave up, and Sam Howell willing the Tar Heels back into the game at all costs. But the Panther defense never broke. 

Most notably, after North Carolina trimmed the Pitt lead to three with 5:34 to go, Pickett threw a rare interception on the Panthers’ first play of the drive. His turnover gave UNC the ball at the Pitt 35, with an opportunity to take its first lead of the game. The Tar Heels marched to the 2-yard line with everybody in attendance thinking that the Panthers had choked a potentially historic season away. But the defense held strong, forcing a field goal and overtime.

After a touchdown from Pickett to senior tight end Lucas Krull, the Pitt defense responded by pressuring Howell into a game-clinching interception by sophomore cornerback MJ Devonshire. Devonshire’s pick ended the game and kept Pitt’s ACC title hopes alive.

“I gotta give credit to my teammates,” Devonshire said. “Tonight was my chance to finally make a play.”

In a season where the Pitt offense has had to bail out the defense time and time again, the defense leading the Panthers to a win was a shocking, but welcome result. 

Abandoning Abanikanda in second half proved costly

Pitt sophomore running back Izzy Abanikanda got the start and received the majority of the workload in the Panthers’ backfield, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Abanikanda played a big role in Pitt’s dominating first half, carrying the ball 10 times for 57 yards. His success on the ground led to long, sustaining drives and tired the UNC defense in the process. So it was a bit of a mystery when the sophomore carried the ball just once in the second half.

When you are up by two possessions with only a half remaining, it’s imperative to continue to establish the run game, drain the clock and limit possessions for the opponent — especially when there is an offense on the opposite sideline as talented as the Tar Heels.

Pitt wide receiver junior Jared Wayne (5) and UNC defensive back sophomore Storm Duck (29) dive for the ball during Thursday’s game against UNC at Heinz Field.
(Patrick Cavanagh | Staff Photographer)

Instead, in a mind-boggling display of second-half play calling, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple opted to air it out six times on first downs in the second half and run on just three plays.

The Panthers had just two yards on the ground in the second half. Pitt’s coaching staff provided a blueprint of how not to play with the lead.
They got in the win column, so that’s all that matters. But with eyes to the future, the Panthers need to give Abanikanda and their stable of running backs a hefty workload to grind games away. They have proven they can do so on a variety of occasions this year.

Pitt’s best season since 2009 through 10 games

The Panthers are enjoying their best start through 10 games since 2009, when they were 9-1 through 10 games before infamously losing to West Virginia and Cincinnati in heartbreaking fashion. 

Why is this important?

The 2009 team was the best Pitt team in decades. They were ranked as high as No. 8 in the AP Poll, and finished with 10 wins, but didn’t finish how they would have liked to. The loss is still a stinging one more than 10 years later, considering Pitt had the Big East Title in its hands and let it slip away after losing 45-44 in the regular season finale to Cincinnati. 

This year’s roster has the ability to right the ship. They control their own destiny and have the opportunity to win another Coastal Division title and play for an ACC title.

If the Panthers win out, they would not only win the division and earn a berth in the ACC Championship Game, but win 10 regular season games for the first time since 1981 as well. 

This has the opportunity to be the best season in Pitt football in four decades — if they take care of business the rest of the way. In doing so, they will earn their place alongside some of the greatest teams in program history. 

The 2009 team squandered that opportunity. But the 2021 team is well positioned to finish this season in style and will decide their own fate. 

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