After rallying from a 27-3 deficit to tie the game with a 24-0 spurt, Pitt retook possession with 6:24 to play. The Tar Heel defense forced a three-and-out, which set up Ryan Switzer’s game-winning 61-yard punt return for touchdown with 4:46 to play.
The Panthers (5-5, 2-4 ACC) weren’t done, though. A pair of first downs and 40 yards later, Pitt faced a 4th-and-1 at UNC’s 26-yard line with 1:15 to play. The Tar Heels (5-5, 4-3 ACC) had been unable to get off the field in their home loss to Miami a month ago, but Bandit Norkeithus Otis (3.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL) made the play on the edge.
“I knew the tackle was going to try to base block me because he was heavy on his hands,” Otis told reporters following the game. “My job is to get across his face and make a play, and I got across his face and made a play.”
Otis wasn’t the only Tar Heel to make plays in the first ACC meeting between these programs.
UNC sacked Pitt quarterback Tom Savage (23-of-38 passing, 313 yards, 2 TD) seven times on Saturday at Heinz Field. Those seven sacks match UNC’s total against East Carolina last season and equals the most since sacking Wake Forest 10 times in 2000.
The Panthers’ game plan was effective early in gaining 125 yards on 18 plays in their first two possessions. UNC stood tall in the red zone on both trips, though, limiting Pitt to three points.
Pitt managed just seven yards of offense over its next 22 plays. By the end of that stretch, UNC led 27-3.
Kareem Martin continued his beast mode of late, registering eight tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The senior defensive end has 7.5 sacks over his last five games after notching 1.5 through UNC’s first five contests.
Martin’s play drew Pitt’s attention, which created opportunities for his teammates.
“They were sliding the line to Kareem and trying to contain him,” defensive back Terry Shankle said.
Shankle added two sacks from his Ram position, Otis added another and Bandit Darius Lipford paired with Martin on UNC’s seventh sack. The Tar Heels tallied six quarterback hurries and five pass breakups.
“We were putting an extreme amount of pressure on Savage,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said.
After falling behind 27-3, the Panthers responded with a pair of lengthy touchdown drives – 76 and 96 yards – to pull with 10 points by leaning on running back James Conner (19 rushes, 102 yards, TD).
“They were mixing and matching,” Martin said. “We couldn’t really key in on the run and we couldn’t really key in on the pass. They also started to run the ball really well, which was extending the drives.”
Pitt capitalized on two UNC fumbles to score its final 10 points, needing only 17 yards of offense to tie the game.
The Tar Heels prevented the Panthers from regaining the lead on their final two possessions, which represents another step forward for the defense.
“They’re finding a way to get it done,” Fedora said.