Comeback runs out: Takeaways with Mack Brown second-guessing UNC’s loss in OT at Pitt

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PITTSBURGH — Coach Mack Brown had dried off, but still dripped with rethinking the end of regulation and what might’ve been a special victory for his North Carolina team, but instead evaporated into a loss.

The Tar Heels fell to No. 25 Pittsburgh 30-23 in overtime Thursday night at Heinz Field, a winding Atlantic Coast Conference football experience that swung North Carolina from the brink of becoming a blowout victim to the verge of winning in the final minute of regulation.

North Carolina put together 16 straight points during the second half, capped by Grayson Atkins’ short field goal from 20 yards that forced a 23-23 tie with 57 seconds remaining in regulation, and ultimately sent the game to overtime.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett’s 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lucas Krull in overtime proved to be the difference, as the host Panthers (8-2 overall, 5-1 ACC) maintained their standing as the league’s Coastal Division leader.

On a night when the Tar Heels (5-5, 3-4) recovered and rallied after tumbling into deficits of 17-0 in the first quarter and 23-7 by halftime, Brown couldn’t help but reconsider the fourth-and-3 situation with Pitt clinging to a shrinking 23-20 lead and one minute left in regulation.

North Carolina had first- and second-and-goal from the Panthers’ 2-yard line, and couldn’t punch in what would’ve been the go-ahead touchdown. When the fourth down arrived, the Tar Heels, having harnessed the game’s momentum at that juncture, turned to Atkins for the tying score, rather than rolling the dice and trying for perhaps an all-or-nothing touchdown attempt.

“I should’ve gone for the fourth-and-3 at the end,” Brown said. “Because the way it ended up, the rain was really hard and put us in an awful position in overtime. The reason I didn’t do it, I got talked out of it, but also we hadn’t made fourth down and 3 or 4 or 2. But still looking back I would’ve been better off going for the fourth down at that point.”

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell and Co. got swamped in overtime, the rain intensifying into a monsoon after Pickett’s third touchdown pass of the night snapped the 23-23 tie and returned the lead to Pitt.

Howell couldn’t manage to navigate the impossibly drenching conditions with the Tar Heels needing to answer to extend the game to a second overtime period. He had second- and third-down passes fizzle and wobble, and not reach intended targets Kamari Morales and Josh Downs. On fourth down, he was intercepted by Pitt defensive back M.J. Devonshire on a desperation heave under pressure.

“We had a lot of opportunities,” Howell said. “No matter the circumstances, we’ve got to make a play there at the end, and we didn’t.”

Which allowed Brown, the College Football Hall of Famer, to second-guess himself on the fourth down at the goal line in the last minute of regulation.

“That’s my fault,” Brown said. “I can’t get talked out of it unless I don’t want to do it. I changed my mind. If I’d have known it was going to rain like that and put our kids in such a bad position, I sure wouldn’t have waited.”

Howell plowed for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal to cut Pitt’s lead to 23-20 with 5:34 to go in regulation. Then, North Carolina linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel intercepted Pickett and the Tar Heels eventually capitalized on Atkins’ game-tying field goal from chip-shot distance.

“I thought it was a great call to kick the ball when we were down near the goal line,” Gemmel said. “The defense had been playing so great in the second half, why would you not kick it and go into overtime with our defense playing so good in the second half? I thought it was the right call. I thought it was the smart play.”

Here are more takeaways from North Carolina’s eventful loss on Thursday night:

UNC finds comeback knack just in time

North Carolina has found its comeback knack just in time again.

After trailing Pittsburgh 17-0 in the first half and 23-7 in the second half, Grayson Atkins’ chip shot field goal from 20 yards ties the game at 23-23 with 57 seconds remaining in regulation, and ultimately sends it to overtime.

The Tar Heels have scored 16 straight points. Sam Howell plowed for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal to cut the Panthers’ lead to 23-20 with 5:34 left. Then, linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel intercepted Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett to put North Carolina in position for Atkins’ tying field goal.

Pittsburgh linebacker SirVocea Dennis, right, sacks North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell during Thursday night’s game at Heinz Field.

Tar Heels keep hanging around

Sam Howell connects with Antoine Green for another touchdown, and North Carolina is managing to hang around.

Howell’s 23-yard pass to Green on third-and-10 trims Pittsburgh’s lead to 23-13 in the third quarter. Damarri Mathis had tight coverage on Green, who was able to secure the catch in the end zone. The play stands up after an official review.

The Tar Heels, who have been dominated at times, can’t make it a one-score game. The ensuring two-point conversion attempt goes nowhere, with Howell chased out of bounds.

Green has two catches on the night, both of them for touchdowns.

First half to forget for UNC

Call it a first half to forget for North Carolina, even with Jahlil Taylor’s block of Pittsburgh’s field goal attempt during the final 30 seconds.

The 25th-ranked Panthers have built a 23-7 lead by halftime here at Heinz Field, and the Tar Heels are fortunate not to be trailing by more.

Pitt’s Sam Scarton missed an extra point kick after Kenny Picket’s second touchdown pass of the night. Earlier, Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi elected to have Scarton boot a 34-yard field goal on a fourth-and-short situation, when Pitt could’ve chosen to keep a drive inside the red zone moving.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was sacked five times during the first half. The final play of the first half, perhaps fittingly, was a Panthers sack of Howell.

Pitt leads 337-121 in total yards — and 76 of Carolina’s yards came on the Howell’s touchdown bomb to Antoine Green.

Pickett is 13 of 22 passing for 244 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Pitt led 17-0 before the Tar Heels got on the board.

Sam Howell pounces when Pitt defense slips

Pittsburgh slips and Sam Howell pounces on the opportunity.

Panthers defensive back Damarri Mathis loses his footing near the line of scrimmage and falls to the grassy turf, leaving North Carolina receiver Antoine Green running free.

Howell hits Green for a 76-yard touchdown, a simple pitch and catch and a sorely needed score to get the Tar Heels on the board with 6:24 remaining in the first half. North Carolina trails Pitt 17-7.

The Tar Heels had just 36 total yards prior to that big play, and had punted to end their first five possessions of the night.

Tar Heels drowning with Sam Howell engulfed

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell has been engulfed and the Tar Heels are drowning on offense.

Pittsburgh dropped Howell for quarterback sacks on each of the Tar Heels’ first four possessions, while quickly building a 17-0 lead.

Georgia Tech swarmed Howell for eight sacks in September. Pitt already is halfway to that number less than 90 seconds into the second quarter.

Howell, who has five 100-yard rushing games on the season, is stuck at minus-25 rushing yards due to the lost yardage from the sacks.

Panthers pounding UNC out of the gate

North Carolina has wasted no time in falling into another sizeable deficit.

Kenny Pickett’s 1-yard touchdown toss to tight end Gavin Bartholomew on third-and-goal puts Pittsburgh ahead of the Tar Heels 14-0 less than 11 minutes into Thursday night’s game.

Vincent Davis scored on a 2-yard TD plunge to get Pitt on the board with a 7-0 lead. Jordan Addison’s punt return to the North Carolina 20 set the table there.

Last week, the Tar Heels tumbled into an 18-point deficit against Wake Forest, before climbing out with a fourth-quarter rally to victory.

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Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Times-News: UNC football takeaways: Mack Brown second-guesses OT loss at Pitt

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