BY WILL GRAVES
Turns out North Carolina punt returner Ryan Switzer and Pitt’s enigmatic season have something in common.
Each are tough to get a handle on.
The Panthers spent 15 minutes erasing a 24-point deficit against the Tar Heels on Saturday and 15 seconds watching Switzer make the rally immaterial. The freshman’s zig-zagging 61-yard return for a score with 4:46 remaining lifted North Carolina to a 34-27 victory and continued a confounding pattern that Pitt coach Paul Chryst has been unable to solve in two seasons on the job.
A week after an emotional upset of Notre Dame, Pitt (5-5, 2-4 ACC) couldn’t find a way to build on it and now needs to win one of its final two games to become bowl eligible for a sixth straight season.
“I don’t know necessarily if complacency was an issue,” Chryst said. “I don’t think we didn’t care about it. They made more plays and we didn’t.”
Quarterback Tom Savage shook off seven sacks and a brief injury scare to throw for 313 yards and two scores, but running back James Conner was drilled on fourth-and-1 at the North Carolina 26 with 1:10 to go as a bid for one of the more improbable comebacks in program history fell short.
“I thought I saw something, but the two middle linebackers were pressed up the middle,” said Conner, who ran for 102 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 27. “I knew it was going to be tough, and I knew if I was going to get it that it wouldn’t be by much. But the refs said I didn’t get past it. So, that was the end of it.”
One or two more hands on Switzer would have helped. The freshman raced 65 yards untouched down the sideline for a score late in the first half to help the Tar Heels take a 24-3 lead at the break.
The second score proved more difficult. Switzer fielded the punt at the North Carolina 39 and headed to his right. He appeared to be hemmed in at the Pitt 35 but cut all the way back across the field, running through two arm tackles in the process.
“It hurts,” Pitt defensive back Jason Hendricks said. “We had the momentum on our side and thought we were going to make a comeback. The returner made plays, and they did a good job blocking us.”
And the Panthers did a poor job of blocking the Tar Heels. Savage spent more of the game’s first 35 minutes taking a hit on nearly every snap.
During one five-possession span in the second and third quarters, Savage endured six sacks, avoided another by intentionally grounding the ball by switching the ball to his left (non-throwing) hand and injured his left knee at the end of a lengthy scramble.
“I appreciate that he’s a warrior,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “I appreciate what he does. I love the way he plays. He’s pretty even keeled and obviously competitive.”
Turns out, so are the Tar Heels.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams racked up 252 total yards, including a pair of touchdown runs as the Tar Heels (5-5, 4-3) won their fourth straight after a 1-5 start.
“We talk about adversity all the time and what you have to do with it,” coach Larry Fedora said. “They didn’t blink and kept believing in each other.”
Maybe, but Pitt seemed to be the believers early.
The Panthers marched 64 yards on the opening drive for a field goal and were deep in North Carolina territory on their second drive when Savage scrambled to his left and had the ball knocked out of his hand by North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin.
Travis Hughes recovered and in an instant Pitt’s momentum vanished.
North Carolina ripped off the game’s next 27 points. Williams dashed in from 16 yards out – completely freezing Panthers defensive back Anthony Gonzalez – to give the Tar Heels the lead. After a Thomas Moore field goal, Williams ran through a pair of arm tackles during a 10-yard sprint around the left end to make it 17-3.
The Panthers had no answer for long stretches as North Carolina’s rejuvenated defense, which was so abysmal earlier in the season associate head coach Vic Koennig said he was “disenchanted” by his group’s play, attacked Savage relentlessly.
Still, Savage hung around and put the Panthers in position to take the game to overtime, a bid that ended when Conner found no space to move on fourth down.