CHARLOTTE --- North Carolina's opportunity to rid themselves of the demons of last year's loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl turned into a case of déjà vu Saturday night, as mistakes and missed opportunities led to a 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh---UNC's third straight postseason setback.
The Tar Heels (8-5) had every chance they could have imagined to come away with the victory, from Charles Brown's near interception on Pitt's opening drive, to having the ball deep in Panther territory in the second quarter, only for quarterback T.J. Yates to throw a costly interception.
And then there was the final two minutes of the first half, in which UNC managed the clock in such a way as to give Pittsburgh (10-3) a chance to go down and score right before halftime---a field goal that wound up playing a huge role in the final outcome.
"We had a lot of respect for Pitt and their football team," said UNC head coach Butch Davis after the game. "They are a good football team. There is probably a reason they were 35 seconds away from going to the Orange Bowl as the Big East Conference champions."
"There is something I've been telling our football team for three years---the only way you're going to find out if you're any good is if you start playing good football teams," Davis added. "You play good teams, and it reveals a lot about you."
"It was a good, physical game---just like we pretty thought it would," said cornerback Kendric Burney. "They executed, and at the end we kind of did some dumb things that came back and bit us. For the most part it was a great game, physical like we thought. Give credit to Pitt for coming out and doing what they had to do in the end to win the game."
Although UNC kicked itself in the foot on multiple occasions and essentially gave away the game with 78 yards in penalties and two devastating turnovers, Pitt certainly made their share of big plays.
Freshman running back Dion Lewis rushed 28 times for 159 yards and a touchdown---breaking Tony Dorsett's Pitt freshman rushing record along the way---while another rookie, split end Mike Shanahan, led the way with five receptions for 83 yards.
While Lewis shredded the Tar Heel defense with his nifty moves and flat-out speed, it was Shanahan who kept UNC honest by catching pass after pass over the middle.
"He (Lewis) reminds me of Clinton Portis," said Coach Davis. "He has that same explosiveness in the hole as Portis. He can jump straight, sideways, spin and cut. Because of his speed and because of his quickness he doesn't take a lot of blows."
"He's definitely the best back we've faced in my four years of being here (at UNC)," said Burney of Lewis. "He's definitely one of the best 'footwork' guys, bouncing things the way he needed to bounce it, and you've got to give him credit. Here in another two or three years he's definitely going to be something special. He's going to be a high draft pick for somebody."
"It felt like it was two pretty good teams, but unfortunately we didn't come out on top," said linebacker Quan Sturdivant. "Pitt played good. The running back had a good game and the quarterback (fifth-year senior Bill Stull) did well. They've got some talented players, but we fell short a little bit. We've got to be ready when we come back and play again."
"They just executed better than we did, you know," added Burney. "The running back, Lewis, he just bounced it when he needed to bounce it and got into the hole when he needed to do it."
Things started off well enough for the Tar Heels, for after forcing Pitt into a long field goal attempt on the opening drive of the game---an attempt that was missed by the Panthers---UNC marched 77 yards in seven plays, climaxed by a 15-yard touchdown pass from Yates to Greg Little, giving UNC an early 7-0 edge.
Pittsburgh promptly marched the ball right back at UNC, led by a pair of Stull completions and a 10-yard run by Lewis. At the UNC 26 Lewis broke away on what appeared to be a touchdown run, but he fumbled near the goal line and the ball bounded out of the end zone for a touchback.
As it turned out, it was one of the few lucky breaks the Tar Heels would get all day.
On UNC's ensuing drive, rookie Erik Highsmith fumbled after catching a pass, and the Panthers recovered.
Regaining their composure, Pitt moved 26 yards in a drive that wrapped around the end of the first quarter and start of the second quarter, and a 31-yard field goal cut Carolina's lead down to 7-3.
Following a Tar Heel three-and-out, it only took Pitt three plays to move 45 yards, with Lewis accounting for all the yardage.
After breaking off a nine yard run on first down, Lewis broke free for a 26-yard gain, setting up his third straight carry, an 11-yarder into the end zone for a 10-7 Pitt advantage.
Carolina had a golden opportunity to reclaim the lead on its subsequent offensive possession---moving inside the Pitt 5---but Yates threw a wayward pass over the middle intended for running back Ryan Houston that was intercepted by Pitt's Dan Mason at the edge of the goal line.
Although UNC was able to tie the game at 10-10 later in the period, the Tar Heels did not run off enough clock to avoid a late Pitt possession near halftime.
Then kicker Casey Barth booted a squib kick out of bounds, setting up the Panthers at their own 40.
It took just five plays to set up the Panthers for another 31-yard field goal from Dan Hutchins, this one giving Pitt a 13-10 halftime lead.
Both the Panthers and the Tar Heels put together time-consuming scoring drives in the third quarter---Pitt a seven play drive that took over four minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal, and UNC a 10 play, 70-yard march that burned over five minutes and resulted in the team's final score, an eight-yard pass over the middle from Yates to Little that made the score 17-16 in favor of UNC heading into the fourth quarter.
Carolina had every reason to feel good about where things stood following a nice punt from Grant Schallock that pinned Pitt back at its own 5-yard line with 9:39 left.
However, the inspired Panthers embarked on a fateful 17 play, 79-yard march, keyed by five straight runs by Lewis, a QB keeper by Stull, and then two more runs by Lewis.
Stull converted a huge third down with a pass to Shanahan, and following six more runs by Lewis and a costly 'offsides' penalty by UNC when the Panthers were setting up for a 47-yard field goal, Hutchins connected on his fourth field goal---setting a new Meineke Bowl record---and giving Pitt a 19-17 lead with just 52 seconds remaining.
"It (the offsides call) was definitely a killer," said Burney. "It went from a 47-yard field goal to a little 'chip shot' for them, so it definitely affected us a little bit. But you've got to go back to the previous 10 plays that got them down there."
Yates moved the Tar Heels approximately 10 yards on its last possession, getting a first down along the way, but UNC was ultimately stopped on downs at its own 48-yard line, securing Pitt's first 10-win season since the days of Dan Marino.
"They came up with couple of key pass plays during that (last) drive, and they just executed better than we did," said Burney. "Both teams played great, and in bowl games like this, things are going to happen. There are going to be explosive plays and things like that. You've just got to give them the credit for doing what they had to do in the end to win the game."
"As a football coach I have to take responsibility for composure, not losing your composure, staying in the moment and playing in the game and playing as hard as you possibly can," added Davis. "We didn't play as smart as we needed to. Some of the things we did, we shot ourselves in the foot and field position-wise as a result of the things we didn't do, and that is my fault."
Despite another heartbreaking loss to conclude the season, Coach Davis was quick to point out the positives of returning to a bowl game and showing marked progress this season in the face of a myriad of injuries and team setbacks.
"I'm very proud of this football team and this football program," said Davis. "The mileage we have gone in these last three seasons, back-to-back winning seasons and back-to-back bowl games these last two years---we've covered an awful lot of ground, but we haven't even scratched the surface of where we want to go. There are going to be bigger and better things in the future."