Five Takeaways: 5 things that stood out from Pitt’s 42-24 loss to UNC

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Pitt lost to North Carolina on Saturday night by a score of 42-24. The Panthers held a second half lead for the second straight week, but yet again they faltered down the stretch and could not maintain momentum into the fourth quarter.

Here are five takeaways from the game.

Not a full 60 minutes

Pitt came out against No. 21 North Carolina and likely had its best offensive drive of the season with a statement 77-yard drive to open the game to take an early 7-0 advantage. The Panthers continued to play solid football through halftime and even into the third quarter.

Pitt built two separate two-score leads of 17-7 and 24-14 during Saturday night’s game with the Tar Heels, but when the North Carolina potent offense finally got rolling in the second half, the Panthers could not keep up the pace.

In last week’s game against Louisville, Pitt scored 3 points after halftime and 0 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers only mustered one second half touchdown on Saturday, and did not score a point in the fourth quarter for the second straight week.

It was a game that started with a lot of promise for the Panthers, but was filled with missed chances, and by squandering those opportunities, a good team like North Carolina finally took advantage.

The Tar Heels boast one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses behind freshman quarterback Drake Maye, and Pitt held them to just 63 yards of offense in the first quarter, but the score was tied 7-7 after one. North Carolina punted on three of its first four possessions, which left a window for Pitt, but the team never fully seized the opportunity.

Pitt has four losses this season, and in those four contests the Panthers have scored a total of 34 points in the second half. There have been plenty of winnable moments in those four defeats, but by not playing a full 60 minutes has continually cost this team games throughout the season.

Slovis struggles again

Pat Narduzzi was not ready to put the blame on Kedon Slovis following the game, but it was another lackluster performance for the Panthers’ starting quarterback. Slovis was 14-of-31 for 236 yards with 0 touchdowns. He completed less than 50% of his passing attempts for the game, and only had six completions in the second half.

Slovis came out and engineered an impressive opening drive and marched the Panthers down for an early 7-0 lead. The Pitt quarterback also had five completions that traveled over 20 yards, including some impressive deep shots that have not really been there most of this season.

The deep passing game was a welcomed addition to the offense, and it unlocked another weapon as well. Jared Wayne had the best individual performance of his career with seven receptions for a career-high 163 yards. Pitt has needed to stretch the field more this season and at times they were finally able to show that in this game.

Despite connecting on some of those deep passes, the offense in the second half sputtered. After hitting Wayne for a 50-yard pass to set up an Israel Abanikanda touchdown run, Slovis missed on his next six passing attempts.

After Pitt fell behind 24-21 in the third quarter and the team’s final four possessions went: punt, fumble, punt, and turnover on downs. Those four drives netted a total of 60 yards. Pitt just simply crumbled once the Tar Heels grabbed the lead.

North Carolina’s offense found a rhythm late in the third quarter, and it just felt like Pitt had no chance to answer if it became back-and-forth type of game. Pitt kept giving North Carolina short fields, and Drake Maye was more than capable of taking advantage.

Slovis has now started seven games for Pitt, and owns a 3-4 record as a starter. He only has 5 passing touchdowns this season which matches his total number of interceptions as well. There are plenty of issues around this team that have sprung up throughout the season, but the play of the quarterback feels like the biggest one.

Defense could not contain Drake Maye

Pat Narduzzi pointed to one specific moment that changed the game, and it’s hard to argue it did not play a factor in how it played out down the stretch. Pitt star defensive tackle Calijah Kancey was chasing down Maye on a scramble attempt, and was flagged for a targeting penalty late in the first half. Maye missed one snap because of it, but Pitt lost its best player for the rest of the contest.

Pitt had two sacks in the first half and as a defense they were laying some tough hits on Maye and slowing his timing. But once Kancey left the field, even though he only had one tackle, it seemingly changed the Panthers’ defensive outlook.

North Carolina entered this game as the best offense in the ACC. Maye has been putting up huge numbers week after week, but the Pitt defense held the Tar Heels down to 21 points through three quarters. Eventually Maye found a grove and posted 21 in the fourth quarter alone. On North Carolina’s final three possessions, they started with the ball inside of Pitt territory each time thanks to errors by both the Pitt offense and the special teams.

Pitt’s defense has been playing just OK this season, but they have also likely underachieved at the same time given all the talent and experienced they have returning. On Saturday, they couldn’t contain Maye and this high-flying offense. Maye threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns. Both Josh Downs and Antoine Green posted 100-yard receiving games as well. Once that UNC offense started to click, there was really no stopping it.

Asking the Pitt defense to hold North Carolina down for four quarters without the offense offering much help in the second half was not ideal and the outcome ultimately proved that to be true. The Pitt defense is prone to giving up big plays, and North Carolina has plenty of big-play threats. It went about as expected. Whether it was fair to ask or not considering the circumstances, Pitt just needed more from its defense on Saturday, and they didn’t deliver.

Pitt is wasting an all-time great season by Abanikanda

Pitt junior tailback Israel Abanikanda entered Saturday as the nation’s leader in touchdowns and all purpose yardage. He has virtually been Pitt’s offense for weeks now, and once again the star running back put together another impressive showing on Saturday night against the 21st ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.

Abanikanda rushed it 26 times for 127 yards on Saturday and he posted three touchdowns, including a 22-yard sprint to put Pit up 24-14 in the third quarter. He made big plays and added tough yardage, but it wasn’t enough to get the win.

Abanikanda has been as solid as you could have hoped for this season, and then some. During Saturday’s game he went over the 1,000-yard plateau and became the first Pitt back to hit that milestone since 2018, when both Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison achieved it.

It was also his sixth 100-yard game of the season.

Abanikanda has been there for this offense week after week. His performance on Saturday will be overshadowed by a third quarter fumble, which ultimately changed the entire scope of the game. But it was also Abanikanda’s first fumble of the year, in what has otherwise been an All-American worthy campaign for the junior from Brooklyn.

Pitt just isn’t taking advantage of what Abanikanda has been doing this season. It has been well documented all year that Pitt wanted to be more-balanced on offense, and maybe even shaded towards running it more. That strategy is fine in theory and I kind of get it too, because looking at it now, Abanikanda is clearly their best offensive weapon and featuring him makes a lot of sense.

Over the course of the last three games, Pitt has scored 10 offensive touchdowns. Abanikanda has all 10 of them. He is kind of entire offensive identity right now, and that’s great, but not the balance they were hoping to achieve.

Pitt’s passing game has been stuck in neutral this entire season. With any semblance of a competent passing attack, they likely do not have a 4-4 record right now. The Panthers arguably have the best running back in the country this season, but they are wasting his efforts with a poor passing game and certainly some other deficiencies as well.

Syracuse and the road ahead

Following Saturday’s defeat to North Carolina, Pitt is 4-4 on the season. The Panthers are now 1-3 in the ACC. Repeating as ACC Champions is not completely off the table mathematically, but for all intents and purposes we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this team is not going to Charlotte in five weeks.

If anything, the 2022 season comes down to being bowl eligible and right now that may be a tough ask for the Panthers given the way that they are playing. Given the last two weeks, it does not feel like a sure thing at all this team can come out and beat an ACC opponent for four quarters. Pitt did nothing in the month of October to suggest things are going to be any better come November, where the Panthers close out the regular season with four games against conference opponents.

The same mistakes and issues that started early in the year are still lingering eight games into this season, and there have not been many signs of improvement in all facets of the game. Pitt is still committing special teams blunders each week, along with costly penalties, plus an anemic offense, and miscues on defense. There are moments of stretches of good play each game, but rarely has the team put it together for four quarters this year.

Pitt’s first opportunity to right the ship will come on Saturday, when they welcome in Syracuse to Acrisure Stadium for a 3:30 kickoff. The Orange were picked to finish as one of the worst teams in the ACC, but they have surprised many with a 6-2 start to the season. Despite losing the past two games, the Orange just seem like a flat out better football team than Pitt right now.

Pitt has won 17 of the past 20 meetings against Syracuse. The two teams have played each other every season dating back to 1955, and the Panthers have had a considerable edge in recent history. Pitt has won four straight against their rivals to the north, including a comfortable 31-14 victory last season that clinched a 10-win season.

That feels like a distant memory.

Even with history on their side, the recent trends of the 2022 season likely outweighs those advantages Pitt has enjoyed lately over Syracuse. Pitt is just in a bad way right now, and while Syracuse likely falls out of the top 25 this week, they will be coming to town with some confidence.

I’m not so sure Pitt can feel the same way.