Pitt football falls to Tar Heels 42-24, dropping third conference game


AP Photo/Chris Seward

Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) passes against North Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

The Panthers traveled to Chapel Hill with their backs against the wall. After dropping two conference games already, the matchup with the No. 21 North Carolina Tar Heels was essentially a must-win game.

The Panthers couldn’t wait any longer to turn their season around — it was do-or-die. The last eight meetings with the Tar Heels are all decided by seven points or less. That streak ended on Saturday night.

Pitt (4-4, 1-3) fell to North Carolina (7-1, 4-0) 42-24. The Panthers performance encapsulated their entire season up to this point. In the first half, they showed promise and put together a balanced half of football — showing potential. But Pitt once again couldn’t put together a complete game when they needed it most. 

In a tale of two halves, the Panthers saw themselves fall apart on both sides of the football in the second half. Pitt gained 219 yards of offense in the first half. But in the second half, the Panthers only mustered up 124 yards of offense. On the opposite side of the ball, the Panthers defense held the Tar Heels to just 14 points in the first half before the dam broke, allowing 28 points in the second half. 

In a surprising decision, Pitt opened the game throwing the football — but it paid off. Senior quarterback Kedon Slovis found sophomore receiver Bub Means for a gain of 40 yards to kickstart the drive. But Pitt returned to the run game to register the first points of the night, with junior running back Israel Abanikanda scoring from six yards out to give Pitt a 7-0 lead. 

The Panthers defense came to play early against a potent Tar Heels offense, forcing a quick three-and-out. Pitt chose to start its second drive the same way it opened the game and opted to throw the ball. But the Panthers couldn’t find the same level of success, going three-and-out, with Abanikanda not touching the football. 

North Carolina took over with favorable field position and took advantage of the Panthers’ aggressive cornerback play, drawing a pass interference call to get deep into Pitt territory. Tar Heels’ first-year quarterback Drake Maye used his legs to pick up a crucial fourth down, then found senior wide receiver Antoine Green just two plays later to even the score. 

North Carolina’s offense entered the game ranked No. 8 in the country in scoring. In order to slow the Tar Heels down, the Panthers needed to pressure the quarterback and they did just that. Pitt finished the first quarter with two sacks. 

Junior defensive back MJ Devonshire provided the Panthers with some momentum, with a 26-yard punt return. From there, Pitt continued to place emphasis on the play-action. Slovis connected with senior receiver Jared Wayne on a 41-yard strike. Abanikanda did the rest, plunging in from four yards out for his second touchdown of the game. 

Pitt forced another North Carolina three-and-out, and had the opportunity to create some separation on the scoreboard. Pitt sophomore defensive back P.J. O’Brien committed a targeting penalty which led to a disqualification and solid starting field positioning for the Tar Heels. Pitt overcame the mistake and continued to find success out of play action before the drive stalled.

The Panthers salvaged points out of the drive though, with sophomore kicker Ben Sauls connecting from 47 yards out to give Pitt a 17-7 lead. 

North Carolina didn’t take long to answer back. Maye found Green again, this time on a 50-yard pitch and catch, to set the Tar Heels up inside the ten-yard line. Maye eventually found first-year receiver Kobe Paysour on a touchdown from a yard out, to trim the Panthers’ lead to three.

Pitt leaned on Abanikanda — who eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season on the drive —  but went three-and-out. 

Pitt junior defensive lineman Calijah Kancey became the second Panther ejected on a targeting call late in the first half. The Panthers held strong, denying the Tar Heels on a fourth and short. But Pitt needed to close out the rest of the game without its midseason All-American

Pitt forced a punt on the opening drive of the second half and the offense capitalized quickly. Slovis connected with Wayne on a 50-yard pass — continuing to show increased chemistry between the two — before Abanikanda found the endzone for the third time, giving Pitt a 24-14 lead.

Abanikanda scored 10 straight touchdowns over the course of the last three games for the Panthers. 

North Carolina methodically drove its way deep into Pitt territory before the Panthers forced a fourth down. This time though, the Tar Heels picked it up on the legs of Maye. Maye then used his arm to connect with junior wide receiver Josh Downs on a 13-yard touchdown pass, once again cutting the lead to three.

The Panthers returned to the wildcat, a formation that they had success with last week, and it jump started the drive. Abanikanda rushed for 21 yards — bringing him to over 100 rushing yards for the sixth straight game — but the drive stalled shortly after. 

North Carolina quickly made its way into the red zone as the third quarter came to a close. It took the Tar Heels just 53 seconds to get in the end zone on the drive. Sophomore running back Elijah Green scored from two yards out, giving North Carolina a 28-24 lead — their first lead of the night. 

Pitt continued to hand it off to Abanikanda, who carried the ball four times for 25 yards, giving the Panthers the ball around midfield. On third-down-and-one, Pitt went back to Abanikanda but he fumbled the ball. North Carolina recovered the ball at the Pitt 49 yard-line, and threatened to take a double digit lead.

The Tar Heels took three plays to push the lead to eleven, as Maye connected with Downs again, this time on a 25-yard touchdown pass. The Tar Heels scored 21 unanswered points on three straight possessions. 

Pitt needed a response but couldn’t find one, going three-and-out without gaining a single yard. The game got away from the Panthers. Downs returned the punt for 25 yards, setting the Tar Heels up at the Panthers’ 35 yard-line. 

Adding on the already successful night, Maye found Green again for another touchdown — 28 unanswered points for the Tar Heels. 

Pitt will look to bounce back next Saturday against Syracuse at 3:30 p.m. at Acrisure Stadium.