Pitt trailed for much of the game, lost its grip on the football when it mattered most and was tricked by the ACC’s last-place team when a North Carolina wide receiver threw a touchdown pass.
Put it all together, and it added up to a 34-31 North Carolina victory Thursday night at Heinz Field that all but ended Pitt’s bowl hopes.
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, whose team ended a two-game winning streak in front of a crowd of 34,056 at Heinz Field.
“We talk all the time about taking it. We found a way to give it away, really.”
The Panthers (4-6, 2-4 ACC) are in danger of suffering their first losing regular season since 2007. North Carolina (2-8, 1-6) ended a six-game losing streak.
The winning touchdown was scored by wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who caught a 3-yard pass from quarterback Nathan Elliott with 6 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game. Ratliff-Williams also threw a touchdown pass off a double reverse and scored on a 98-yard return of the opening kickoff.
Couple the kickoff return — marked by shoddy tackling — with a fumble at the goal line by Quadree Henderson when he appeared ready to score. Narduzzi counted a 17-point swing that decided the game.
“No team’s good enough to overcome that stuff,” he said. “And we’re certainly not there yet.”
Pitt wasted a 23-carry, 121-yard, four-touchdown effort by running back Darrin Hall.
“We did a great job running the football,” Narduzzi said. “Darrin Hall was a man again.”
But the failure of the passing game was something Narduzzi can’t ignore. The Panthers almost solely relied on their running game, with quarterback Ben DiNucci completing 11 of 17 passes for 142 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
“Not throwing it good enough,” the coach said, pointing to a 9-yard sack of DiNucci when Pitt had first down at midfield and trailed only by three late in the fourth quarter.
“That really hurt you, put you behind the sticks. You have to throw the ball away if it’s not there and live to play another down.”
North Carolina changed its defensive front for that series, and Pitt couldn’t handle it.
“It’s kind of tough to make those split-second decisions,” DiNucci said. “I’d love to hit the check down or get a few of those out of bounds so we don’t lose that yardage. That’s stuff I have to work on for next week.”
Next week now becomes even more critical. The Panthers must win their final two games — at No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Miami at home.
North Carolina built a 24-17 halftime lead on the strength of a trick play and a fumble by Pitt’s Quadree Henderson. The Tar Heels took a 21-17 lead when Ratliff-Williams threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Cabrera with 4:36 left in the second quarter. The play started out looking like a double reverse, allowing Cabrera to run almost unnoticed into the Pitt secondary.
Pitt looked like it would retake the lead on its subsequent possession, but Henderson fumbled seconds before crossing the goal line. North Carolina linebacker Cayson Collins returned it 66 yards to set up a 51-yard field goal by Jones with 30 seconds left in the half.
Previously, Pitt fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter. The first score was Ratliff-Williams’ 98-yard return of the opening kickoff in which he ran through some shoddy tackling.
“Kind of a gift,” Narduzzi said. “I give them credit, but … it’s not what they did, it’s what we did.”
Later in the first quarter, Elliott threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Fritts.
Pitt countered with 42-yard field goal by Alex Kessman and two scoring bursts by Hall — 7 yards and 1 yard — to take a 17-14 lead with 9:58 left in the first half.
Hall set up his first touchdown when he caught a 30-yard pass from DiNucci, who triggered the play with a fake handoff to his eventual intended receiver.
Wide receiver Maurice Ffrench’s 20-yard run preceded the second Hall score. Ffrench appeared to score, but replay review put the ball on the 1.
That score followed a 14-yard punt by North Carolina’s Tom Sheldon, who was trying to keep the ball from Henderson, who entered the game with seven career returns for touchdowns.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.