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North Carolina tops Pitt 34-31 to grab first ACC win

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North Carolina scored with just over six minutes left in the game, taking the lead and the game from a Pitt team that had a two-game winning streak prior to the 34-31 setback Thursday night.

If the national audience hadn’t yet realized how brutal it has been for the Panthers this year, they might have a clue now.

In the Thursday night primetime spotlight, Pitt (4-6, 2-4) got itself into a seesaw battle that saw North Carolina (2-8, 1-6) finish upright, corralling its very first ACC win of the year at the Panthers’ expense in a 34-31 affair at Heinz Field.

Pitt has now lost five years in a row to the Tar Heels.

Anthony Ratliff caught a 3-yard pass from Nathan Elliott with 6:18 left in the game, which would be the winning score needed for UNC to complete the upset.

“We really found a way to give it away,” said Pat Narduzzi.  “I give them credit, but, it is not what they did it is what we did.”

The Panthers had to rally back instantly, as Ratliff returned the opening kickoff for a 98-yard touchdown, which gave UNC the lead.  After an Alex Kessman 42-yarder, Elliott connected with Brandon Fritts on an 11-yard hookup to give the Tar Heels an early commanding 14-3 advantage.

“We gave some things up.  We weren’t tackling well,” said Oluwaseun Idowu, who finished with six tackles and two sacks on the night.  “There are things we can do better.  Fundamentally, we got to finish tackles, wrap up.  We have to finish plays and finish games.”

Led by Elliott’s 235 yards on 20-of-31 passing, UNC’s offense rattled off 366 yards, while being outrushed by Pitt at a 267-96-yard difference.

Darrin Hall terrorized the Tar Heels’ defense to the tune of 121 yards on 23 carries and all four Pitt touchdowns, including a one-yard score that capped a nine play- 75-yard drive to start the fourth quarter, giving the Panthers a 31-27 lead. 

“It’s a little hard,” said Hall, who completed his third straight 100-yard performance Thursday night.  “We know that we’re not done.  We can still go to a bowl game.  We’re not going to throw in the towel, but this was a hard loss.”

 “We played pretty well,” said the glass-half-full quarterback Ben DiNucci, who tossed for 142 yards on 11-of-17, with 83 yards on the ground.  “There are some things to look back on but, for the most part, it is what we expected them to do on defense.  We were executing most of the day.”

Pitt’s offense suffered its most costly miscue of the game came with just under four minutes left in the first half, when Quadree Henderson fumbled on a jet sweep at the goal line, with Cayson Collins recovering the loose ball at the pylon, and returning it for 66-yards to the Pitt 34, axing what was a promising seven play- 75-yard drive that would have given the Panthers back the lead.

“Obviously, it’s a disappointing game,” said Narduzzi.  “I really don’t know how to explain it.  We talk all the time about taking it.  We found a way to give it away.  It’s kind of a gift.”

The Panthers’ final drive stalled out at midfield, when DiNucci tossed two incompletions and was sacked for a loss of nine yards, forcing the team to punt with 2:54 left, in which they would never get the ball back.

“At the end of the game, I thought we could punt it and hold them,” explained Narduzzi.  “We couldn’t get that done.”

Jordan Whitehead uttered the thoughts he, his teammates and most of Pitt nation is feeling after Thursday night’s addition to the unmerciful 2017 campaign.

“Definitely very frustrating,” the safety said.  “Nobody wants to lose, but the way we are losing, the little things that are happening, it’s just the plays.  We left a lot of plays out there.”

After the spread

The Panthers came in as 10-point favorites and disappointed, losing for the first time as a favorite this year (3-1.)  North Carolina won straight up as the 3/1 moneyline dog. 

The total, which was set at 51.5 points sailed well over with 65 points combined.  It marked the first time in six games that a Pitt game went over the total. 

Up next

The Panthers will travel to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech next Saturday.  Kickoff from Lane Stadium is set for 12:20.

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