PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi found himself at a loss for words. The Pittsburgh coach spent more than three hours watching his team repeatedly respond against North Carolina only to let the Tar Heels slither off the hook yet again, taking Pitt’s best chance at reaching a bowl game along with it.
“I give them credit, but it’s not what they did, it’s what we did,” Narduzzi said after a 34-31 loss on Thursday night dropped the Panthers to 4-6.
Or, to be more precise, what Pitt didn’t do.
The Panthers had the ball and the lead with 10 minutes to go and went three-and-out. Pitt got it again with 6:18 to play down by three, reached midfield and then immediately went backward. The Panthers punted but had all three of their timeouts when the Tar Heels took over with 2:54 to play. Instead of getting a stop, Pitt let North Carolina rip off three first downs to run out the clock as the Tar Heels improved to 5-0 against the Panthers since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013.
“It’s not a matchup problem, not at all,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve just got to make plays.”
Time is running out. Pitt needs to beat No. 17 Virginia Tech on the road and upset No. 7 Miami at Heinz Field the day after Thanksgiving to assure itself of a 10th straight bowl appearance. While the Panthers expected a bit of rebuilding following a pair of 8-5 seasons to start Narduzzi’s tenure, they didn’t expect this.
“How many losses we have is just unacceptable, nobody wants to be like that,” safety Jordan Whitehead said. “I just want to win the last two games.”
A daunting task for a group that hasn’t come within 17 points against the three ranked teams it has played this fall. Both the Hokies and the Hurricanes will have significant stakes to play for when they face the Panthers. Pitt’s goals are more modest: simply extending its season beyond Nov. 24.
“Definitely very frustrating,” Whitehead said. “Nobody wants to lose the ways we are losing, the little things that are happening.”
The big ones too. Pitt had the ball at the North Carolina 5 late in the first half with a chance to take the lead. It certainly looked like the Panthers would go in front when Quadree Henderson took a handoff and raced for the pylon. He ended up getting there, just without the ball.
North Carolina’s J.K. Britt stripped Henderson before he reached the goal line. The ball popped into the hands of linebacker Cayson Collins, who sprinted 64 yards to set up a field goal that put the Tar Heels up 24-17 at the break.
By Narduzzi’s estimation, between Henderson’s fumble and Anthony Ratliff-Williams 98-yard sprint for a touchdown on the opening kickoff that gave North Carolina the lead just 15 seconds into the game, Pitt handed North Carolina 17 points.
“We’re not there yet where we can overcome these things,” Narduzzi said.
The extra practices assured by a bowl berth would help. Guaranteeing requires the Panthers playing beyond their years.
“We have two games left,” Whitehead said. “We have to make the best of it.”