For just over four minutes in the fourth quarter, Pitt flipped the script.
The Panthers rallied from a 24-point deficit to tie North Carolina in a game where much was at stake. For those four minutes, it looked like they were heading to a victory that seemed implausible an hour earlier.
Then, the momentum that Pitt arduously wrested from the Tar Heels (5-5, 4-3 ACC) in the second half vanished in a few seconds -- specifically, the amount of time it took North Carolina punt-returner Ryan Switzer to run 61 yards.
Switzer's touchdown return, his second of the game, proved to be the deciding score in the Tar Heels' 34-27 win Saturday against Pitt at Heinz Field.
The Panthers had clawed back from a 27-3 deficit four minutes into the third quarter to tie the score at 27 with 8:52 left, but they never claimed the lead.
"It hurts," safety Jason Hendricks said. "Especially when we had the momentum on our side. We thought we were going to make a nice little comeback. The guy [Switzer] made plays. He did a good job."
Switzer's first return -- a 65-yarder late in the second quarter -- capped a first half that hardly could have gone worse for Pitt (5-5, 2-4). Any momentum gained from the upset win against Notre Dame last week vanished.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst and his players insisted that there was no hangover from the win against the Irish, but Hendricks admitted that the team came out "flat" for whatever reason.
"I think we just got off to a slow start," Hendricks said. "We weren't doing the things we were supposed to do, and it showed in the first half."
Part of that slow start can be traced to Pitt's defense, which struggled to contain North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who scrambled for two rushing touchdowns in the first half. He finished with 79 yards on 15 attempts.
"It's always hard with athletic quarterbacks," Hendricks said. "You don't really know what they're about to do because they're athletic. They make plays with their feet, and that's what he did today."
Williams' two touchdowns, plus Switzer's return, paved the way to a 24-3 Tar Heels lead at halftime.
To top it off, Pitt quarterback Tom Savage went down with a knee injury on the Panthers' final drive of the half and had to be helped off the field. X-rays taken at halftime showed no damage, though, and Savage returned for Pitt's first series of the second half.
"He's a warrior," Chryst said.
On the third play of that drive, Savage was sacked and fumbled, setting up the Tar Heels for a field goal that widened their lead to 27-3.
Savage was sacked seven times just a week after the offensive line turned in an improved performance and gave up just one sack against Notre Dame. Savage completed 23 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns.
After that North Carolina field goal, though, something clicked.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Street said he talked to the team at halftime.
"It wasn't anything crazy," Street said. "It was just, 'Let's go. We know the situation. Let's stick together as a team, lean on each other and play for the man next to you.' "
Shortly after leading by words, Street led by example.
On Pitt's first drive after North Carolina's field goal, he hauled in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Savage to kick-start the comeback. Two forced fumbles in North Carolina territory helped, but Pitt also showed much improvement on offense and defense in the second half.
"We were just tired of feeling sorry for ourselves," running back James Conner said.
Conner punched in the tying touchdown with 8:52 left in the game just three plays after Hendricks recovered a fumble on a Pitt kickoff.
That score gave Pitt 10 points in a span of 57 seconds.
The teams traded three-and-outs before Switzer's winning return.
Chryst said he thought about punting the ball out of bounds, but decided against it.
"Our gunners had been doing a pretty good job," Chryst said. "We didn't want to mess with [punter Matt Yoklic] too much."
Pitt took over with 4:46 left, needing a score to make one more comeback.
Conner, however, came up well short on fourth-and-1 at the North Carolina 26, then a long desperation pass by Savage with five seconds left fell harmlessly to the turf.
That meant the Panthers had remained stuck where they were at the start of the day: One win away from bowl eligibility.
"We all can do better," Chryst said.
"Every week you can. You can build, you can improve. Tonight, we've got to make a pledge to truly look at ourselves and what we can do better.
"It's how we respond. We've got to own this one."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published November 16, 2013 4:02 PM