By R.L. Bynum
Carolina woke up from a first-quarter nightmare fraught with bad defense, penalties and a rough performance by the Tar Heels’ offensive line.
All of that flipped in the second half and UNC forced overtime. But Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with Lucas Krull in overtime for an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the No. 25 Panthers a 30–23 home victory Thursday night.
In a downpour, Carolina (5–5, 3–4 ACC) couldn’t convert as quarterback Sam Howell threw an fourth-down interception on a desperation pass.
Coach Mack Brown said that he inclined to go for the touchdown in the final minute of regulation but was talked out of it.
“That’s my fault,” Brown said. “I can’t get talked out of it unless I don’t want to do it. And so I changed my mind. If I had known it was gonna rain like that, put our kids in such a bad position, I sure would have avoided it.”
Howell didn’t question the decision.
“To be honest with you, I was kind of indifferent,” Howell said. “I understand both ways just because our defense was playing very well. … That’s probably what I would have done.”
Howell admitted that the driving rain created challenges during the overtime but he wasn’t going to make any excuses.
“Our defense did a heck of a job all night long, kept us in it,” Howell said. “We struggled in the first half and still kind of were in a position to win the game. We had a lot opportunities and no matter the circumstances, you know, we’ve got to make a play.”
It was UNC’s first overtime game since losing at Pittsburgh 34–27 in 2019. The Tar Heels fell to 4–8 all-time in overtime games.
“We’re so much better football team than when the season started,” Brown said. “It’s not even close, and that’s why we need to do better in our next two games and hopefully get to a bowl game. We just need to keep getting better.
“The kids are trying hard. They hung in there together,” Brown said. “They kept fighting. They didn’t quit last week. They didn’t quit when Miami went on a roll and then, tonight, they sure didn’t quit even though the offense wasn’t playing well. They were playing hard. We played three ranked teams in 13 days, two of them on the road and had a chance to win all three games and it’s just disappointing that we only one one.”
UNC lost at No. 11 Notre Dame 44–34 and beat No. 10 Wake Forest 58–55 at home last week.
Big plays on both sides of the ball, a huge game from Antoine Green and another huge effort from Howell came together to fuel the comeback.
Howell finished 22 of 33 for 296 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and Green had three catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
Career ACC TD pass leaders
1. Tajh Boyd, Clemson (107)
2. Philip Rivers, N.C. State (95)
3. Sam Howell, UNC (90)*
3. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (90)*
3. Deshaun Watson, Clemson (90)*
* — Three seasons
A diving Josh Downs catch for 46 yards set up a 1-yard fourth-and goal Howell run to slice what was once a 17-point deficit to 23–20 with 5:34 left.
Jeremiah Gemmel intercepted a tipped pass from Pickett on the first play of the next drive. That set up Grayson Atkins with the game-tying field goal with 57 seconds left in regulation.
“Last week, the offense was the reason we won the game, the defense made a few stops at the end,” Brown said of the win over Wake Forest. “Tonight, the defense would have been the reason we won the game and if the offense hadn’t made a few plays. And they made the plays to get us back in the game. They didn’t make plays to finish the game.”
Pickett was 25 of 43 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and one interception for Pittsburgh (8–2, 5–1). He was held to 80 yards in the final two quarters, though.
“Defensively, it shows hope moving forward and a lot of guys had their best games tonight,” Brown said.
It looked like the first quarter would bury UNC: Three drives, three sacks, three punts and no first downs.
“You’ve got to come out with an edge and come out with the mindset ready go to and it’s just a lack of focus,” Howell said if UNC’s slow starts in a few games this season.
Pittsburgh countered on its first four drives: a fourth-down incompletion, a 2-yard Vincent Davis touchdown run, a 1-yard Pickett to Gavin Bartholomew scoring pass and a 34-yard Sam Scarton field goal.
By the time the Tar Heels finally got a first down on the last play of the first quarter, they were already in a 17–0 hole, and had been outgained 199–12 in total yards. And the fourth sack and punt came shortly afterward.
“I think it was really just getting into one of our base calls that we could really run while everybody was on the same page,” Gemmel said of the defense’s rebound after the first quarter. He collected a season-high 10 tackles.
The UNC defense got the second quarter off to a good start by forcing a pair of three-and-outs.
Howell took advantage on the second UNC drive of the period by finding Green (top photo) alone at the Pittsburgh 45 after a Panthers defender stumbled. Green easily dashed to the end zone untouched on a 76-yard scoring play with 6:24 left in the first half, the longest UNC play this season.
Pickett quickly responded with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Jared Wayne with 4:40 left to give Pitt a 23–7 halftime lead. UNC defensive back Storm Duck extended the scoring drive with a holding penalty.
Scarton missed the PAT, then UNC’s Jahlil Taylor blocked his late 31-yard field-goal attempt.
At the start of the second half, Carolina’s longest drive of the game — 11 plays, 52 yards and 5 minutes, 34 seconds — ended when Howell came up short on a fourth-and-one run at the Pittsburgh 23.
UNC wouldn’t be denied on its next drive. The Heels went 54 yards on eight plays and Howell connected with Green again, this time on a 23-yard scoring play with 5:23 left in the third quarter. After Howell had to scramble on a broken play, Carolina couldn’t convert the two-point conversion attempt but sliced the deficit to 23–13.
Another promising scoring chance ended when Howell couldn’t connect in the end zone with Justin Olson on a fourth-and-four from the Pitt 39.
Downs had eight catches for 95 yards.
Carolina single-season receiving yard leaders
1. Hakeem Nicks, 2008 — 1,222
2. Dwight Jones, 2011 — 1,196
3. Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 1,112
4. Josh Downs, 2021 — 1,109
5. Dyami Brown, 2020 — 1,099
6. Dyami Brown, 2019 — 1,034
7. Dazz Newsome, 2019 — 1,018
Carolina single-season reception leaders
1. Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 96
2. Dwight Jones, 2011 — 85
3. Josh Downs, 2021 — 82
4. Hakeem Nicks, 2007 — 74
The Tar Heels now get extra days off before welcoming Wofford to Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, for their final home game and non-conference game of the season. The Terriers, 1–8 entering Saturday’s road game with The Citadel, have lost eight consecutive games since beating Elon 24–22 in their season opener.
No. 25 Pitt 30, UNC 23 (OT)
Photo via @UNCFootball