PITTSBURGH - It seemed the North Carolina football team found a new way to lose in each of its past four games. Blocked punts. Fumbles. Stupid penalties. Not being able to score in the red zone.
The Tar Heels looked to be headed down the same road Saturday against Pittsburgh. UNC held a
13-10 halftime lead but turned the ball over inside the Panther 30 twice in the second half and botched a field-goal attempt. Plus, Pittsburgh threw for nearly 200 yards after intermission.
But North Carolina overcame it all and left Three Rivers Stadium with a 20-17 victory against a Pittsburgh team that lost to No. 2 Virginia Tech by the same margin a week earlier.
"I'm very proud of our football team for fighting through adversity," UNC coach Carl Torbush said. "We had lots of opportunities to lose the ballgame, but we didn't. We kept fighting back."
It marked UNC's first win since it knocked off Marshall on Sept. 23 - a string of four losses.
"It's not really relief, it's happiness," UNC defensive tackle Ryan Sims said. "We finished in the fourth quarter. The last three weeks, we've gotten beat in the fourth quarter when it really mattered."
This time, the Tar Heels (4-5, 1-5 in the ACC) made the key fourth-quarter plays. Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Bryant, who caught eight balls for 212 yards and a touchdown, made perhaps his biggest catch with 10:20 remaining. He downed a Panther punt on the UNC 2-yard line.
North Carolina was faced with traveling 98 yards if it wanted to extend its 13-10 lead and get some breathing room.
A three-and-out series would give the Panthers momentum and good field position. The Tar Heels of the last few weeks might have folded. But not this week.
Quarterback Ronald Curry hit wideout Bosley Allen, who caught seven passes for 91 yards, with a 12-yard completion on second-and-eight from the 4.
"I think that gave us some room and legitimately gave us a chance to win the ballgame," Torbush said.
The words were prophetic. From that point, UNC fed Pittsburgh (5-3) a steady diet of Willie Parker. Parker ran to the left for 25 yards, the longest run by a UNC tailback all season. He caught a screen pass from Curry for a gain of 34 to the Panther 25 and pounded his way up the middle for 11 yards two plays later.
Fullback Anthony Saunders capped the 12-play, 98-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
"That was the most frustrating part," Pittsburgh defensive end Bryan Knight said. "We had them down in great field position and that was basically our key, come into this game and get off the field on third down. We didn't do it."
But the Tar Heels, even with a 20-10 lead, couldn't rest yet. Pittsburgh scored 1:32 later to pull within three points with 4:20 left in the game. North Carolina couldn't move the ball, and the Panthers took over on the UNC 40 after a 19-yard punt by Blake Ferguson.
Pittsburgh had exactly two minutes to move 30 yards and get in position for the game-tying field goal. Or better.
The Panthers looked to the air with backup quarterback David Priestley, who had replaced dehydrated starter John Turman. The two quarterbacks combined to throw for 344 yards on the night. But Priestley got none on the final drive.
Three incompletions set up fourth down, and Julius Peppers sacked Priestley to end the threat. Peppers, who had four sacks last week against Virginia, rang up 2.5 more against Pittsburgh.
While Peppers and UNC celebrated their victory, the Panthers sat in disbelief. All week coach Walt Harris told them UNC was better than its record. He warned them of emotional letdown after nearly knocking off Virginia Tech.
But it didn't work.
"Mentally, we just underestimated them," Knight said. "For some strange reason, when we get down, there's some guys on our team who like to put their head down."
UNC got the Panthers down early, scoring on a trick play with a minute left in the first quarter. On first-and-goal from the 8, UNC unveiled a play called "rooskie" that it has been practicing for a few weeks.
Curry took the snap from center and handed the ball through the legs of Parker, who was lined up behind the right guard. Parker waited as Curry and Kory Bailey ran to the right. Then Parker took off around the left tackle and found his way into the end zone for the first time since the season opener against Tulsa.
"I never thought it would be called; I thought it was a play we'd just work on," Parker said.
Meanwhile, the UNC defense held Pittsburgh in check for most of the first half. The Panther touchdown came on an 84-yard touchdown pass to Bryant that UNC corner Errol Hood called lucky.
Hood tipped a pass from Turman that was headed deep down the sideline for Bryant. The ball went right into Bryant's arms, and Bryant sprinted the rest of the way for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels overcame that play when Jeff Reed kicked his second field goal of the night just before the half ended to regain the lead. They overcame three second-half miscues to keep that lead. They overcame a subpar outing from Curry, who was 13-for-32 with two interceptions. They overcame the pressure of having to win or being eliminated from bowl contention.
And they overcame the stigma of not being able to finish a ballgame, if only for a night.
"It was really good to see this football team have some success," Torbush said. "It's been a long time coming, but we've still got a light at the end of the tunnel."
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