The Tar Heels took an early lead against the Panthers on a T.J. Yates-to-Greg Little 15-yard pass play in the first quarter, but Pittsburgh would score the next 10 points on a Dan Hutchins 31-yard field goal and a Dion Lewis 11-yard touchdown run.
Casey Barth knotted the score with a 37-yard field goal late in the second quarter before Hutchins added another 31-yarder to give Pittsburgh a 13-10 lead at halftime. The junior placekicker drilled a 42-yarder to open the second-half scoring, but the Yates-Little connection provided a 14-yard touchdown pass to give the Tar Heels a 17-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
When Pittsburgh took the field at its own five-yard line with 9:39 remaining, it appeared as though North Carolina was in solid position to win its ninth game of the season. Seventeen plays, 79 yards and 8:47 later, the Panthers were celebrating Hutchins’ fourth field goal of the night – this one from 33 yards – en route to a 10-3 season.
Yates completed 19-of-32 passes for 183 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, becoming just the second quarterback in school history to reach the 500-completion mark. Little added seven catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Ryan Houston churned out 83 yards on 24 carries.
Lewis tallied 159 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, aiding quarterback Bull Stull (17-of-24, 163 yards) and wide receiver Mike Shanahan (5 catches for 83 yards).
Pittsburgh outgained North Carolina, 292-264, and won the turnover battle, 2-1.
INSIDE THE GAME
Mistakes Add Up
The lasting image for most North Carolina fans in this 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl will undoubtedly be the horde of Tar Heels fracturing the neutral zone on Pittsburgh’s 47-yard field goal attempt with 1:55 to play, and for good reason. But that play was just the final one on a day full of questionable decisions and concentration lapses.
Consider this series of events on UNC’s first possession. Setting up for a 1st-and-goal at the Panthers’ six-yard line, the Tar Heels were called for back-to-back illegal formation penalties for having five men in the backfield. On 2nd-and-goal from the eight-yard line, Yates was flagged for intentional grounding for not throwing the ball past the line of scrimmage.
And just when it appeared that North Carolina would overcome those penalties unscathed as Greg Little hauled in a tough catch for a 15-yard score, the junior wide receiver decided to punt the ball into the stands for an unsportsmanlike flag.
In all, UNC was flagged for 8 penalties totaling 78 yards.
“I don’t think that we played as smart as we needed to,” UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference. “... And that’s my fault. As the head football coach, I’ve got to take responsibility for not losing your composure, staying in the moment, playing the game and playing as hard as you possibly can.”
There was plenty of blame to go around. In the second quarter, Yates scrambled to his right on a 3rd-and-goal at the four-yard line and threw across his body into the hands of Pittsburgh linebacker Dan Mason.
And then right before halftime, North Carolina elected to squib a kickoff to a fullback near the 15-yard line to minimize Pitt’s return yardage with only 1:05 left on the clock, but Casey Barth knocked it out of bounds. The Panthers took over at the 40-yard line instead, driving 46 yards in six plays to convert a 31-yard field goal as time expired.
“We didn’t play a smart game like we should,” defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. “Guys that have been here for three years shouldn’t have made some of the mistakes that we made. I wouldn’t put the blame solely on Coach [Davis], because we’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to make plays.”
“We’ve got to learn from this,” Davis said. “We’ve got to learn to play smarter, more efficient and not worry about big spectacular plays… You just can’t go out there and shoot yourself in the foot.”
Panthers Aerial Attack
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s passing game serves as option No. 3 behind Dion Lewis Left and Dion Lewis Right, but the former Tar Heel OC exploited UNC’s secondary with a pair of split ends that check in at 6-foot-5 – Jonathan Baldwin (three catches for 31 yards) and Mike Shanahan (five catches for 83 yards).
The Panthers only converted six of their 15 third-down attempts, but four of those went to Shanahan over the middle for a combined 62 yards.
“On third downs, they did a very, very good job of maxing up the protection and hitting a lot of deep crossing routes,” Davis said. “They got in front of the deep coverage, deep enough behind the underneath coverage and they minimized the ability to put some pressure on them.”
It wasn’t as though defensive coordinator Everett Withers failed to make adjustments. The Tar Heels employed a variety of schemes, including man, zone and the occasional blitz.
“We weren’t in the same coverage every time, so they were just finding that hole in whatever coverage – cover-3, cover-4 and even in man-3 one time,” Williams said. “They just did a good job. [Shanahan] did a good job of stemming outside, selling the corner ball and then breaking in for the dig.”
Shanahan’s final third-down reception – a 13-yard catch on 3rd and 7 – accounted for Pittsburgh’s only completion on its monster 17-play, 79-yard game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
A New Look Offensive Line
When North Carolina’s offense took the field on Saturday, it did so with two freshmen lined up at the guard spots. Not by necessity, however, as was the case earlier this season as Sam Pittman’s unit endured a harsh rash of injuries. This move occurred by design.
In the days following the N.C. State loss on Nov. 29, Davis indicated that he wanted to shake things up along the offensive line and take a look to the future, according to guard-turned-center Alan Pelc.
Part of the reason was due to Pittsburgh’s stout defensive line. Davis told reporters that he wanted to get bigger and more physical inside to be able to combat the likes of Greg Romeus and Mick Williams.
The result was a starting lineup of Pelc at center, Travis Bond and Jonathan Cooper at guards and Kyle Jolly and Mike Ingersoll in their regular tackle spots.
“There were times that Ryan Houston pounded them to death inside,” Davis said. “You get 325-pound Travis Bond, 325-pound Alan Pelc and Jonathan Cooper in there… We felt like with those guys and our tackles that that gave us the best five to match up against them.”
Pelc has started the past two seasons at guard, but indicated after the game that it is unclear whether the move to center will stick through the offseason or not.
“It was a little different playing center,” Pelc said. “I haven’t really had that much experience. I had 40 snaps against Duke. It was a good time and a great experience, but unfortunately we came out on the wrong end of the deal.”