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Poor second half dooms Panthers in 38-35 loss at North Carolina

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Another stalled second half offense and more special teams nightmares doomed Pitt to a 38-35 loss to North Carolina on Saturday afternoon at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - Several poor punts and a fumbled kickoff return consistently set the Tar Heels up with short fields. The home team made the visitors pay nearly every time, riding a 17-0 third quarter to a three-point victory and the Tar Heels first win of the season.

A Pitt offense that exploded for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns in the opening half slowed down considerably in the second. The Panthers managed just 26 yards on their first four drives after halftime before a late 79-yard touchdown drive pulled them within a field goal with three minutes remaining.

North Carolina converted a pair of first downs, however, and the Panthers’ offense never saw the field again.

North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott completed 22 of 31 passes for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Antonio Williams ran for 114 yards and Dazz Newsome added 110 yards on six receptions.

Pitt’s running game continued to thrive as the Panthers rushed for 228 yards, but the passing game was inconsistent and special teams woes proved too much to overcome. Freshman punter Kirk Christodoulou, who has struggled all season, managed less than 36 yards per kick on six punts. Christodoulou had a 33.8 yard average on his first five kicks -- four of which were line drives -- before getting off a 46-yarder in the fourth quarter.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, meanwhile, completed 19 of his 33 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns, but the offense disappeared during the third quarter in what has been a trend so far this season. The Panthers have scored just 10 second half points through four games this year.

Senior running backs Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison combined for 156 yards and a pair of scores on just 18 combined carries for Pitt. Pickett added 37 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and true freshman Mychale Sulahuddin added 34 yards on three carries in his collegiate debut

North Carolina started the scoring after a 32-yard line drive punt by Christodoulou set the early tone. Facing a fourth and 1 from the Pitt 37, Tar Heels running back Antonio Williams snuck past the of scrimmage and shot into the hole for a 37-yard sprint that put the home team ahead 7-0.

Pitt responded with a 28 yard run by Qadree Ollison that set the Panthers up at midfield. Following two straight incompletions, Pickett scrambled for 8 yards on third down and kept for another 9 yards on fourth. Three plays later, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi elected to go for it on another fourth down, and Pickett snuck over the middle for the first down. Ollison’s 13 yard run over the middle set up Pickett’s 7-yard keeper around the left corner for the game-tying touchdown.

UNC junior receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who burned the Panthers for three touchdowns a year ago, made a spectacular catch on a jump ball over Pitt safety Jazzee Stocker on a third and 9 on the ensuing Carolina. The leaping grab preceded a one-yard dive by Antonio Williams for his second touchdown of the afternoon and a 14-7 Tar Heels lead. Ratliff-Williams totaled over 100 yards from scrimmage on the day, 84 receiving and another 19 on the ground.

After a Panthers’ punt, North Carolina appeared to be on the move again, crossing into Pitt territory before Dane Jackson stripped the ball after a third down completion to Ratliff-Williams to give possession back to the Panthers.

A 23-yard run by Sulahuddin and three passes to sophomore Maurice Ffrench led to a two-yard dive by Ollison to even the score at 14.

North Carolina responded with a quick 75-yard drive -- aided by a 15-yard personal foul on Pitt defensive tackle Amir Watts -- capped by a 31-yard strike to Michael Carter on a busted coverage that left the running back uncovered over the middle.

The Panthers and Hall had an answer, though, as the senior back broke off a 65-yard touchdown run to knot the game, 21-21, with three minutes to go in the half.

The Pitt defense came up with a rare three-and-out on the next drive to put the ball back into the offense’s hands. The offense took advantage, thanks to a 42-yard completion from Pickett to Taysir Mack that put the ball at the doorstep. Pickett hit fullback George Aston for the go-ahead touchdown, and the Panthers had their first lead of the game.

Pitt’s defense held North Carolina to a third consecutive three-and-out to open the second half, but another short linedrive punt by Christodoulou gave UNC great field position at their own 44. The home team used three straight completions to set-up Jordan Brown’s one-yard touchdown that evened the score at 28 midway through the third quarter.

Yet another poor punt gave UNC the ball in Pitt territory again, and the Tar Heels made Pitt pay. After converting a third-and-17, Elliot found Dyami Brown wide open in the middle of the secondary for a touchdown and a 35-28 lead.

The special teams mistakes spread to the kick return team as Ffrench fumbled the ensuing kickoff and North Carolina was in business once again. Pitt’s defense held the Heels to a 37-yard field goal, but the Panthers were squarely behind the 8-ball, trailing 38-28 with a little over a quarter to play.

Pitt kept North Carolina off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter, but UNC controlled the ball in the second half and didn’t give Pitt much of a chance until it was too late. A 16-yard scoring strike from Pickett to Ffrench pulled Pitt to within a field goal with three minutes remaining, but the Pickett’s unit  never got back on the field.

The loss knocks the Panthers back to .500 overall (2-2) and in ACC play (1-1). The travel to Orlando to face a ranked Central Florida team next week.

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