When James Conner dived into the end zone to help pull Pitt even, 27-27, with 8:52 to play in the game, one of the great comebacks in recent Pitt history appeared to be in the making.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt took a big step forward when it stared down serious adversity and beat Notre Dame eight days ago at Heinz Field. It took two bigger steps backward Saturday when it lost at home to North Carolina, 34-27. Is it just me or is Pitt badly losing ground in its attempt to climb out of its deep, dark hole of mediocrity, which took more than three decades to dig?
Pitt coach Paul Chryst danced unabashedly in the locker room after the Notre Dame game, apparently thinking the win was going to be a program-changer. I'm not going to blame him for that. I believed it, too. But Chryst must have cried when he went home Saturday night. This loss was that hurtful. Shame on me for not seeing it coming. After all, few things are more predictable in Pittsburgh sports than Pitt collapsing under a little prosperity. It has been happening for years.
Apparently, a lot of people weren't as sold as I was on Pitt's win against Notre Dame. There were empty seats all around Heinz Field on a day when Pitt laughably announced a crowd of 50,049. Many fans were gone early in the third quarter after Pitt played horrid football and fell behind, 27-3. Pitt wasn't ready to play, wasn't focused for a long time and, worst of all, wasn't competitive against a North Carolina team that came in with a 4-5 record.
Why waste a gorgeous fall afternoon watching that mess?
"Obviously, it wasn't a very good first half," Chryst said.
Pitt will pat itself on the back for making a nice comeback, scoring 24 unanswered points to tie the score, 27-27, with 8:52 left. Quarterback Tom Savage, basically playing on one leg after being injured late in the first half, threw touchdown passes to Devin Street and Isaac Bennett. It was impressive to watch Pitt suddenly fight the good fight.
But what good is a comeback if you can't finish the job?
I might have been fooled by the Notre Dame game, but I wasn't buying into Pitt at that point. I've watched the program for too long. I figured it would find a way to lose.
Sure enough, it did.
Two special-teams plays were the difference, although it's just as easy to point to North Carolina's seven sacks and Savage's two lost fumbles, the first killing a drive that reached the North Carolina 12 with Pitt leading, 3-0, early in the game, the second leading to a North Carolina field goal that made it 27-3. Instead of making a fair catch, Pitt punt-returner Kevin Weatherspoon allowed a punt to roll all the way to the Pitt 7, putting the Panthers in distress with 6:24 left.
After the Pitt offense went three plays and out, North Carolina punt-returner Ryan Switzer returned Matt Yoklic's punt 61 yards for the winning touchdown. Switzer also had a 65-yard return for a touchdown late in the second quarter.
"They made a play. We, obviously, didn't," Chryst said.
Pitt still had time to tie the score, but freshman running back James Connor lost a yard on a fourth-and-1 play from the North Carolina 26 with 1:15 left.
"James had been running well," Chryst said of Connor, who finished with 102 yards on 19 carries. "Obviously, when they don't work, you wish you had done something different."
No one was dancing in the Pitt locker room after this defeat.
Here's the most ridiculous part:
At 5-5, Pitt still has a chance to make a bowl if it wins one of its final two games Saturday at Syracuse or Nov. 29 at home against Miami.
Pardon me if I won't be impressed. Making a bowl game is nothing to brag about, even though Pitt and every other five- or six-loss team will do it. It's almost harder not to make a bowl, there are so many.
Even if Pitt somehow wins both games and finishes the regular season 7-5, it still won't feel like a good year. Any coach will tell you they remember the losses more than the wins. The loss to North Carolina -- coming after the high against Notre Dame -- will trouble Chryst for a long time.
"We just didn't do enough," he said, looking and sounding more dejected than angry.
Chryst is finishing his second season at Pitt.
This sort of thing is still new to him.
To the rest of us, though, not so much.
Sadly, we are used to it.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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