Mack Brown had the understatement of the night when he said, “It didn’t look good.”
It’s not a joke. It may have been a layover from the week off or a hangover from their dramatic win at Duke, but the Tar Heels came out slow and unprepared against a Pitt team that flipped its playbook.
The cheerleaders had brought out the victory bell and rang it at midfield as the video boards showed a Duke highlight reel. It boded ill for the task at hand: beating a Pitt team that had won the last two meetings at what was then called Heinz Field, despite never winning in Chapel Hill.
The Panthers are also the defending ACC champions, though UNC’s stunning 42-24 win effectively eliminated them from any chance of reaching another conference title game. And the Tar Heels had lost their last five games after a bye week, but that too ended in a game Pitt dominated for most of three quarters.
Kenan Stadium almost fell asleep as the visitors, who ran the ball 57 percent of the time, came out throwing it over the top and missing UNC defenders. Their quarterback Kedon Slovis, a transfer from Southern Cal, looked like famous Trojans of yesteryear named Leinart, Palmer and Sanchez.
The Panthers scored on the opening kickoff at 3:30 as Slovis had enough time in the pocket until Jared Wayne or Bub Means ran away from a Carolina cornerback or safety. The Tar Heels tied the game (on the first of what would be five touchdown passes by Drake Maye), but soon fell behind by 10 points that felt like 25-plus.
My guess is the capacity Homecoming crowd broke the record for beer sales, young and old alike making constant trips to the concession stand. Pitt still held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter behind Slovis’ surprising accuracy with the long ball and the expected excellence of ACC leading rusher Izzy Abanikanda, who finished with 127 yards on the ground. to surpass 1,000 for the season at Pitt’s. eighth of 12 games.
The Tar Heels missed one chance after another to gain control of the game, leading to Brown’s admonition. They had cut the deficit to 17-14 at halftime and were receiving the third quarter kickoff, which they had to move after a first down. A second explosive pass from Slovis to Wayne, this one for more than 50 yards, set up Abanikanda’s third touchdown to not only bolster his ACC lead, but also top the nation in all-purpose yards (current , receiving, kick returns).
Then, almost out of the blue, Carolina scored the next 28 points. And the game ended in what looked like a blowout, but was much closer to the Pitt dogfights of the recent past. Either the defense woke up the sold-out stadium, or the Tar Heel fans came through for their team.
The fourth quarter began with 50,000 people standing and led by the student section, clapping four fingers forward to the music.
Whatever brought the Lady and her team to life, the final 15 minutes were like a premature New Year’s Eve party with hugs and shouts from the pitch to the upper deck.
North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs (11) passes for a touchdown against Pittsburgh defensive end Erick Hallett II (31) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, October 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
During the hard-fought battle, Carolina’s fly defense stepped up even though it lost three stalwarts and Pitt had two players suspended for offense.
Brown called it the “toughest game we’ve won since coming back.” And the toughest kid in his gang was Maye, who still doesn’t look like he’s had his first shave. The runaway ACC Rookie of the Year threw for 388 yards and his five touchdowns give him 29 on the season, tying him with Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, who had just one in the Buckeyes’ win at Penn State. Maye’s 449 yards of total offense and five rushing touchdowns (now 32) keep him No. 1 in those categories as well.
Maye didn’t attempt any heroics, but he did play much of the game with a small cut on his throwing hand, thanks to a late helmet on a slide at the end of one of his 14 carries for a 61-yard touchdown. In a game that featured 11 penalties of all kinds, that play was the most obvious, and the fans let the refs know when the replay board showed it from various angles while it was under review.
Maye’s 34 completions were spread among ten receivers, led by Antoine Green’s 10 for 180 yards and Josh Downs’ 11 for 102. Both had two for touchdowns, all excellent catches. The fifth went to freshman Kobe Paysour, who just before halftime slipped into the game and ducked between two big tight ends before Maye hit him with a quick slant to cut the lead from Pitt to three.
The second half turnaround was so quick the Panthers didn’t know what hit them en route to a 4-4 record and 1-3 in the ACC. The Heels had made 52 percent of their third downs (first in Power 5 football) but were 0-for-6 to start the game that ended with a catch and run by Downs and another by Gavin Blackwell, followed by a Maye keeper in the fourth. -and-5 after avoiding a sack.
Carolina took its own two-goal lead on Abanikanda’s only mistake: a fumble at midfield that senior tackle Cedric Gray recovered and went to the rim holding the pigskin. It took two Downs passes for 40 yards around another Maye 9 run, and the former ACC champions suffered their seventh straight loss at Kenan.
After a game Pitt had led for 42 minutes, the Tar Heels finished with more total yards (474 to 367), first downs (26 to 14) and time of possession (by nearly three minutes). They are also now 7-1 while wearing all light blue uniforms under Brown.
Top 20 UNC, at 7-1 overall, has now won more games through two-thirds of this season than it has in all of 2021. With a 4-0 record in the Coastal Division, the Heels look like a lock for a date with Clemson in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game. It’s the best start in the ACC since 8-0 in 2015, when Larry Fedora’s fourth team gave the eventual CFP runner-up Tigers a good game before losing 45-37.
But Brown won’t talk about it after the last two years of almost unbearable hype.
“We’ll just keep our mouths shut,” he said, adding that they would play every game that comes. That starts at Virginia (loser to Miami, 14-12, in an overtime field goal fest earlier in the day); a trip to Wake Forest, which was blown out at Louisville; and home games with Georgia Tech and N.C. State. who are managing to squeeze through bad opponents behind their great defense after losing their starting quarterback.
Carolina, meanwhile, could have its second 10-win season since Brown’s first stint here and a crack at its first ACC championship. But shut up for now.
Photo via AP Photo/Chris Seward.
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