The No. 21 UNC football team (7-1, 4-0 ACC) picked up another conference win with a 42-24 victory over the Pitt Panthers (4-4, 1-3 ACC) in North Carolina’s homecoming game on Saturday night.
Pitt junior running back Israel Abanikanda, who Mack Brown called "the best running back in the country" earlier this week, made an early impact in Saturday’s game by scoring the game’s opening touchdown. With the clock at 11:30, he waltzed into the end zone on a 6-yard rush to bring Pitt out to an early 7-0 lead.
After two uneventful drives from either team, redshirt first-year Drake Maye got things started for the Tar Heels with a completion to sophomore running back Caleb Hood for 3 yards to the UNC 44-yard line. 10 plays later, Drake Maye connected with senior wide receiver Antoine Green, who brought the ball to his chest with an impressive one-handed catch on a 16-yard touchdown reception to tie the score at 7-7.
Pitt responded quickly in the second quarter as Abanikanda earned his second touchdown of the evening on a 4-yard gain up the middle to put Pitt ahead 14-7. Pitt scored in under two minutes on three plays, highlighted by a 41-yard completion from senior quarterback Kedon Slovis to senior wide receiver Jared Wayne.
Later in the second quarter, Pitt’s Ben Sauls booted a 47-yard field goal to add 3 more points to the Panthers’ score and bring the Pitt out to a 17-7 lead.
Less than two minutes later, Maye connected with wide receiver Kobe Paysour for a touchdown to bring UNC within 3 points. This touchdown was made possible by back-to-back completions by Green, who connected with Maye for an 18-yard catch and then followed it with a 50-yard catch.
Blown coverages continued to be an issue in the second half, as junior defensive back Tony Grimes was beaten down the field by senior wide receiver Jared Wayne early in the third quarter. Wayne completed a 50-yard reception to pick up a first down at the UNC 22-yard line, which later translated to another touchdown as Abanikanda rushed for 22 yards into the end zone to bring the score to 24-14.
To cap off an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Maye found junior wide receiver Josh Downs breaking toward the back left corner of the end zone. The redshirt first-year fired a pass to Downs for a 13-yard touchdown reception, bringing the score to 24-21 and cutting Pitt’s lead to just 3 points.
This was the start of a 28-point swing, as UNC added three more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, beginning with a 2-yard rush by sophomore running back Elijah Green. Following an Abanikanda fumble forced and recovered by junior linebacker Cedric Gray, Maye connected with Downs twice on a three-play scoring drive that resulted in a 25-yard touchdown reception by Downs. With just over 9 minutes remaining in the game, Maye found Green in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown reception to put UNC up 42-24.
Who stood out?
Unsurprisingly, Maye put the team on his back on Saturday, throwing for 388 yards and 5 touchdowns. Aside from his passing, he accounted for a depleted running back room with 61 rushing yards.
Green also had a stellar night, leading UNC’s receivers with 180 receiving yards. He earned North Carolina’s first touchdown of the game, and his back-to-back explosive plays of an 18-yard reception followed by a 50-yard catch set up Paysour’s monumental touchdown in the second quarter. Green and Josh each recorded 2 touchdowns as this duo continues to power the receiving corps.
When was it decided?
Entering the final quarter with the score at 24-21, Saturday’s game truly came down to the wire.
In a somewhat controversial play, Green found the end zone to hand UNC a 28-24 lead just under a minute into the fourth quarter. This began a 28-point swing that brought North Carolina out to a resounding 18-point lead, putting the game away.
Why does it matter?
UNC entered Saturday leading the ACC Coastal Division by a sizeable margin. The Tar Heels were riding a high coming off of a hard-fought 38-35 victory at Duke, but a loss to the Panthers could snap this momentum and throw the likelihood of a Tar Heel ACC Championship Game appearance into jeopardy.
Despite a rocky start, Maye showed once again that he can take over a game in an instant. UNC's explosive fourth quarter secured the win over Pitt and kept UNC's hopes of returning to its first ACC Championship Game since 2015 alive.
When do they play next?
UNC will travel to Charlottesville, Va. to take on Virginia in another conference matchup set to take place at noon on Saturday, Nov. 5.
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