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November 17, 2013

Pitt can't get another comeback win

After going four years without a second-half comeback, Pitt was on the verge of posting its second late rally in as many weeks. In fact, for a little while on Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, it looked like the Panthers would match their come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame a week earlier with one of the biggest comebacks in school history.

Instead, Pitt missed its opportunity in a flurry of bad angles and missed tackles as North Carolina punt returner Ryan Switzer broke a 27-all tie with a 61-yard return for a touchdown in the final five minutes, giving the Tar Heels a 34-27 lead that would stick.

"Any time you give up a score on special teams, it's a big momentum swing, and unfortunately we gave up two of those," said redshirt junior safety Ray Vinopal, who lines up on Pitt's punt coverage unit and was a first-hand witness to Switzer's 61-yard return that set the final score and the UNC return man's 65-yard punt return in the final minute of the first half that gave the Tar Heels a 24-3 lead.

In between those two long returns, though, a storyline started unfolding for Pitt, and it was one that seemed to draw a direct connection with the Panthers' triumphant and - some hoped - trend-breaking win over Notre Dame last week, a 28-21 victory that saw Pitt overcome deficits of 14-7 and 21-14 in the second half.

That was the Panthers' first second-half comeback victory since the fall of 2009, a remarkable run that saw Pitt lose 16 consecutive games when trailing at halftime. That streak included three such losses already in 2013, and it seemed to define the team and the program with a rather simple mantra:

Get a lead on Pitt at halftime and you won't lose. They won't come back. They can't come back.

But all of that changed last Saturday when the Panthers bucked the trend. They could come back and they did come back, alternating big plays on offense - like the 63-yard pass from Tom Savage to Devin Street - and defense - like Vinopal's two fourth-quarter interceptions - to down the Irish and notch a victory that was not so much a signature win as it was a win of confidence, a win of momentum.

Pitt could come back in the second half now. Pitt was capable of doing it. Pitt had done it.

Of course, none of that momentum carried into the first half of Saturday's game against North Carolina. The Panthers drove the length of the field on the game's first possession but had to settle for a field goal. And then, after the defense forced a three-and-out, the offense marched 61 yards but lost the ball when Savage fumbled while scrambling from the 12.

After that, North Carolina rattled off 27 consecutive points to take a 27-3 lead four minutes into the third quarter. But at that point, Pitt found its Notre-Dame-game mojo. After the Tar Heels kicked a field goal to go ahead by 24, Savage threw a pair of sizeable gains to Street and Manasseh Garner and then laid a perfect pass into the end zone for a 33-yard Street touchdown.

Pitt's defense forced a UNC punt that put the offense at its own 4-yard line, but that was no problem for Savage and freshman running back James Conner, as the latter rushed five times for 47 yards and the former threw for 47 yards, including an eight-yard check-down to junior back Isaac Bennett for a second touchdown.

Then Vinopal came up with his fourth forced turnover in two weeks to give the ball back to the offense, and that group responded with a 42-yard Chris Blewitt field goal to cut the lead to a touchdown. That lead would stand for just about 50 seconds, as Pitt recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Conner rushed in for a two-yard touchdown to tie the game.

Just like that, it was back. The momentum from the Notre Dame game had been fully recovered, and it only seemed to grow when the defense came up with a big third-and-6 stop on UNC's next possession, giving the ball back to the offense with victory well in sight. Everything was going according to script and the storyline was being replayed.


"I was proud of the way the guys responded," head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. "We gave ourselves a chance to have a chance there, but we didn't get it done."

What Pitt didn't get done came after that offensive possession. With a three-and-out stifling the momentum a bit, Matt Yoklic sent a punt flying 50 yards to Switzer. From there, bad angles and poor discipline gave the UNC return man an open path to the end zone, which he gladly took for 61 yards and the eventual win. The final nail came when the offense drove to the Carolina 26, only to have Conner stuffed for a loss on fourth-and-1.

The comeback win against Notre Dame had the team believing it could overcome anything, even a 24-point deficit in the third quarter. But on Saturday, the coaches and players were unable to turn that confidence into results.

"Absolutely; I think that's a big part of this team," Vinopal said when asked about the confidence factor after the game. "There's no quit in the locker room at all. All of these guys are going out knowing that we can win at any time. You're always going to be in every ball game when you have a group of guys that are going to just keep at it and keep at it."

"It's all how you respond to adversity; you can go around it or you can hit it head-on," Street said. "I think we did that, we just came up short today."

Pitt came up short of a record-balancing third ACC win and short of a bowl-clinching sixth overall win, and the Panthers came up short of matching their late-game heroics from a week ago; the first two are tangible disappointments, but the latter is one of implications that are both broad and precise. The players may still believe they are capable of such wins - after all, they did battle back for a 27-27 tie in the fourth quarter - but nothing builds momentum like success, and ultimately, Pitt didn't have that on Saturday.

"Momentum's huge in football; no one has to tell anyone that," Vinopal said.

Now Pitt has to manufacture more of that momentum when it heads to Syracuse this coming Saturday for the penultimate game of the 2013 regular season.

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