Pitt collapses in the fourth quarter – again

For the second week in a row, Pitt entered the fourth quarter of a road game against an ACC opponent with a slim lead.

And for the second week in a row, the Panthers couldn’t hold that lead, failing to build the lead on offense or protect it on defense.

Last week, Pitt was at Louisville, clinging to a 10-7 advantage after Ben Sauls made a 37-yard field goal with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter. But the Cardinals scored five minutes into the final period on a drive that saw running back Trevion Cooley bust a 26-yard gain before quarterback Malik Cunningham ran a throwback pass 33 yards to the Pitt 11.

Two plays later, Cunningham threw to tight end Josh Lifson, who made his first catch of the season for a go-ahead touchdown.

The Cardinals added an insurance field goal later in the quarter on a drive that saw Cunningham convert a third-and-10 with a 28-yard pass.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s offense, which had squeaked out 10 points through the first three quarters, failed to get anything going, undone by its own mistakes in the fourth quarter just as it had been in the previous 45 minutes. A would-be big pickup on a screen pass was derailed by an errant throw. A drive into Louisville territory after the Cardinals’ touchdown was one good play followed by four failed attempts. And in desperation time with less than five minutes to play and a touchdown deficit, Pitt got across midfield on a roughing call but iced the game when half of the offensive line didn’t know the cadence, resulting in an easy scoop-and-score to put it away.

Last night in Chapel Hill, the scene was different but the outcome was the same. Pitt was ahead 24-21 after three quarters, but that lead felt tenuous, at best, with likely conference player of the year Drake Maye at the helm for North Carolina.

Maye and the UNC offense scored less than a minute into the fourth quarter to take a 28-24 lead, putting the pressure on Pitt’s offense to answer the score. The Panthers had plenty of time to run their offense, and Israel Abanikanda carried the ball four times for 21 yards to get to the 50, but he fumbled on third-and-1, UNC recovered and Maye made three plays – a 15-yard pass to Josh Downs, a nine-yard scramble and a. 25-yard pass to Downs – to get another seven points for the home team.

Trailing now by 11, Pitt’s offense felt the pressure, and Kedon Slovis answered Maye’s three made plays with three incomplete passes, none of which were all that close. Maye only needed three more plays – two, really, since the first down snap was a run for no gain from running back Elijah Green – to put the game away. The redshirt freshman star threw to Kamari Morales for 22 yards and Antoine Green for 13 and the final score.

Pitt’s last drive of the game started with 9:02 on the clock. The Panthers managed just 19 yards in three minutes and 42 seconds of game time, yielding on a fourth down failure from the Pitt 44. UNC then converted two third downs to eat the final 5:25.

All told, Pitt’s offense produced just 48 yards in the fourth quarter at UNC, with Slovis completing 4-of-10 passes for 22 yards and Abanikanda running for 26 in addition to losing a fumble. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, put up 127 yards in the final 15 minutes. Maye was a near-perfect 6-of-8 for 91 yards and two touchdowns as his team gained seven first downs – while only facing two third downs.

Last week at Louisville, the numbers were similar. Slovis completed 4-of-10 for 35 yards in the fourth quarter and the Panthers rushed for 34 yards, while the Cardinals put up 121 yards of offense, including 91 through the air.

Put it all together, and Pitt has been outscored 31-0 (just on offense; not counting the scoop-and-score) and out-gained 248-117 in the fourth quarters of the last two games while giving up two turnovers and creating none.