In a game that was tightly contested for 45 minutes, the 21st-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels found another gear in the fourth quarter and ran away from the Pittsburgh Panthers, winning their homecoming game 42-24. Quarterback Drake Maye added to his unreal season with 388 passing yards and yet another 5-touchdown game and the UNC defense found some consistency in the second half against one of the best rushing attacks in the country, and the Heels maintained their unbeaten record against the ACC.
Pitt began the game with the ball and unexpectedly started the game with four straight pass plays, one of which was a 40-yard completion that got them immediately within scoring distance. The Panthers made it to the red zone with relative ease and finished the drive with a 6-yard scoring run by running back Israel Abanikanda for an ominous start for the UNC defense. Things threatened to get out of hand early after the offense went three-and-out, but a great special teams play by Elijah Green backed Pitt up inside their 10, which the defense took advantage of in forcing a three-and-out of their own and giving their offense the ball near midfield. On the ensuing drive, Josh Downs drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone as the Heels down the field, converting a fourth down with a Drake Maye sneak in the process. A few plays later, Maye found Antoine Green in the back corner of the end zone to equalize the score, and the game was tied 7-7 at the end of the first quarter.
UNC got a little lucky on the next drive, as a Pitt receiver dropped a potential deep reception with nobody around him, leading to a 3rd and 10 that the Heels kept in front of them. They then caused another round of palpitations by running into the punter on the ensuing 4th, but it was a 5-yard penalty on 4th and 10 — ultimately harmless, but UNC, backed up near their own goal line, was forced to punt the ball back and Pitt returned the ball a long way to start the drive on UNC’s side of midfield. Another completed deep shot got them inside the five-yard line, and Abanikanda finished another drive to get his team back on top.
Again, UNC couldn’t manage to put a drive together after a Pitt touchdown, and to this point in the game, hadn’t yet converted a third down. After a strange technology delay that amounted to nothing in the middle of Pittsburgh’s bid to stretch the margin to two scores, the Heels tightened up around their own 35 to hold the Panthers to a field goal, which was converted to put them up 17-7. But the UNC offense finally found some rhythm, with two big plays to Green getting them in the red zone. After Josh Downs came inches from scoring on what would have been another highlight-reel play, Kobe Paysour finished the job from inside the one-yard line to bring UNC within 3. The Heels had a chance to add points with the ball and 2 minutes to go before halftime, but after Maye hurt his hand on a scramble, the offense went out of sync and had to give it back. The teams went into the locker room the score still at 17-14 to the visitors. UNC had been playing most of the half without starting running back Caleb Hood and edge defender Noah Taylor, who both left the game with injuries.
The Heels started the second half with a couple of nice plays, but were ultimately forced to punt after pressure from the Pitt defense got them off schedule. Pitt made them pay on the other end with another deep shot to Jared Wayne, his third of the day, that set up another Ibanikanda touchdown from 22 yards out. This time, however, the UNC offense was ready to respond, marching down field mostly through the air. Maye converted a fourth down with his legs in the red zone, then found Downs in the back of the end zone to get his team back within three. The UNC defense then looked like it might give those points back, but bowed up at midfield, including their first sack of the game coming on third down courtesy of Kaimon Rucker. The UNC offense had a chance to tie or take the lead, and with the help of a couple of big plays from Antoine Green in the air, the Heels got to the red zone as the third quarter came to an end. Immediately after, J.J. Jones got the Heels inside the two-yard line with a nifty catch and run before Elijah Green ran through traffic for a score, giving UNC its first lead of the game, 28-24.
Pitt threatened in the run game getting to midfield, but on a third and short, the Heels forced the first turnover of the game, hitting Abanikanda in the backfield and forcing a fumble recovered by Cedric Gray, giving UNC the ball in great field position with a chance to add to the lead, and this was where Drake Maye truly took over. After beating a couple of Pitt blitzes by throwing to the flats, he found Downs all alone in the end zone to put the Heels up double digits. On the next possession, after a Downs punt return to the 35, Maye found Antoine Greene on a backshoulder fade for his second touchdown and Maye’s fifth, making the score 42-24. In the space of 4 minutes, UNC went from down 3 to up 18. On the next drive, which felt like Pitt’s last gasp, the Heels again held on 3rd down near midfield — their third down defense in the second half was excellent, holding the Panthers to just 3 for 7 — and then Storm Duck blew up the ensuing fourth down pass attempt to give his offense the ball back. A few first down runs later, the Heels were kneeling the clock to triple zeroes, and took home what ended up as a dominant 42-24 win — Mack Brown’s first against Pittsburgh since he came back to Chapel Hill.
Maye set his own records for completions and attempts in a game where the UNC run game was effectively neutralized, going 34/44 for 388 yards and five scores to no interceptions. A bunch of that, especially in the early going, went to Antoine Green, who had a career day with 10 catches for 180 yards and the two scores, and while Maye and Downs weren’t always on the same page, some creative playcalling and key hookups got Downs to 11 catches for 102 yards and a pair of scores. The Heels’ next action will be at Charlottesville, where Mack Brown will try to set another first — he’s never won visiting the Cavaliers.