PITTSBURGH (AP) – Kenny Pickett threw for 359 yards and a touchdown and ran for a pair of scores – including a 3-yard burst on the opening possession of overtime – as Pittsburgh held off North Carolina 34-27 on Thursday night to pick up its first win over the Tar Heels since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.
The Panthers (7-3, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) kept their hopes of a second straight Coastal Division title alive when Pickett darted into the end zone to start overtime and the defense followed by forcing North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell to throw incomplete on fourth-and-16.
Pickett completed 25 of 41 passes and ran 12 times for 53 yards as Pitt ended a six-game losing streak to the Tar Heels (4-6, 3-4). Sophomore wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis caught three passes for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Howell finished 27 of 43 for 322 yards with three touchdowns and an interception for North Carolina as the Tar Heels rallied twice in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Antonio Williams ran for 107 yards and Dazz Newsome caught 11 passes for 170 and a touchdown.
Howell threw two touchdowns in an 88-second span to erase a 24-10 deficit. Pitt moved back in front on a 24-yard field goal by Alex Kessman with 5:18 to play but Howell responded by taking North Carolina 60 yards in 13 plays. Noah Ruggles hit a 32-yard field goal with 13 seconds left in regulation, setting the stage for another tight finish. All seven meetings between the schools as conference rivals have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Pitt, which entered the game second in the country in sacks, got to Howell five times, including a sack by Jaylen Twyman that pushed the Tar Heels back to fourth-and-long in overtime. Howell’s lob to the end zone for Michael Carter fell well short and the Panthers poured onto the field in celebration.
The Panthers have relied heavily on Pickett this season, partly by design following the arrival of first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, and partly out of necessity with the running game struggling to find anything resembling consistency.
Against the Tar Heels, Pickett found time to let loose. He completed passes of at least 25 yards to five different receivers, including a beautiful rainbow to Jacques-Louis midway through the second quarter that the sophomore wide receiver turned into a 74-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 17-7 lead.
In a series that’s found a way to be both lopsided and tight at the same time – North Carolina’s six victories came by a combined 26 points – the Tar Heels didn’t go quietly. Howell’s fearless play in the second half sparked a comeback that proved North Carolina is heading in the right direction in head coach Mack Brown’s return.
North Carolina: Howell can sling it. The freshman kept his poise despite being under heavy pressure most of the night. As he matures, the Tar Heels figure to be on the upswing. Still, North Carolina will need wins in each of its final two games to earn a bowl berth.
Pitt: Pickett’s competitiveness is the main reason the Panthers have a shot at a rare Coastal repeat. He absorbed a pair of late hits on consecutive plays in the third quarter and took a series of shots yet kept getting back up.
North Carolina: Tar Heels welcome Mercer in their home finale on Nov. 23.
Pitt: Travels to Virginia Tech on Nov. 23. The former Big East rivals have split their six meetings since Pitt joined the Hokies in the ACC.
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