Panthers slip past Tar Heels
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It wasn’t the bowl Pittsburgh wanted to be in, but the Panthers made a case that they’ve returned to prominence.
Dion Lewis rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown to pass Tony Dorsett as Pittsburgh’s top freshman rusher, and Dan Hutchins kicked a 33-yard field goal with 52 seconds left to give the 17th-ranked Panthers a 19-17 win over North Carolina on Saturday in the Meineke Bowl.
Winning 10 games for the first time since Dan Marino was the quarterback in 1981, Pitt (10-3) overcame a disappointing loss to Cincinnati three weeks ago that cost it a Sugar Bowl berth and staged a late rally in front of a hostile crowd.
Pitt converted on fourth down at its own 30 and took advantage of a key offsides penalty to set up Hutchins’ fourth field goal.
T.J. Yates threw two touchdown passes to Greg Little, but his incomplete pass on fourth-and-10 from his own 49 with 6 seconds left sent the Tar Heels (8-5) to their second straight loss.
Lewis surpassed Dorsett’s freshman rushing record of 1,686 yards in the first quarter and finished with 1,799, behind only Dorsett’s 2,150 in his Heisman Trophy-winning, national championship season of 1976.
Yates was 19 of 32 for 183 yards and an interception while Little caught seven passes for 87 yards and Ryan Houston rushed for 83 yards.
But North Carolina’s defense, which came in sixth in the nation overall and ninth against the run, struggled to contain the shifty Lewis and continued a trend of struggling to close out games over the past two seasons under coach Butch Davis.
The matchup featured old coaching buddies who won a national championship and Super Bowl together. Pitt’s Dave Wannstedt and Davis worked on Jimmy Johnson’s staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami and the Dallas Cowboys. Their careers then included NFL head coaching jobs before they returned to college.
It took Wannstedt’s big gamble to help Pitt end a two-game losing streak after North Carolina took a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter on Yates’ second touchdown pass to Little.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 30 with 6:36 left, Bill Stull got 3 yards on a quarterback keeper.
Lewis was later stuffed on third down, leaving Wannstedt with another decision on fourth-and-2 from the North Carolina 30 with 1:30 left. He brought out the field goal unit, but North Carolina’s Cam Thomas jumped offsides, giving Pitt a first down.
Lewis got 13 yards on the next play, and his 6-yard run into the middle of the field set it up for Hutchins and erased an earlier blunder.
Lewis broke Dorsett’s 36-year-old mark on a 24-yard run late in the first quarter that ended with him fumbling the ball through the end zone for a touchback when E.J. Wilson knocked the ball free.
The shifty Lewis made up for it with a personal, three-play 45-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown run that put Pitt ahead 10-7 early in the second quarter.
The 5-foot-8 Lewis had eclipsed 100 yards by halftime, his 10th 100-yard game of the season and his eighth straight. Not bad for a lightly recruited player deemed too small by most of the major schools.
North Carolina had to overcome its own turnover trouble. Erik Highsmith’s fumble set up a Pitt field goal, and Yates was picked off by Dan Mason near the goal line in the second quarter.
After missing from 40 yards on Pitt’s opening drive, Hutchins kicked two 31-yard field goals, the second giving the Panthers a 13-10 halftime lead. Hutchins kicked his school-record 22nd field goal early in the third quarter to make it 16-10.
North Carolina scored on its opening drive when Yates hit Little for a 15-yard touchdown catch in traffic that looked much better than when Little punted the ball into the stands for a 15-yard penalty.
There wasn’t much competition for the ball. The combination of its date the day after Christmas, North Carolina’s second straight trip here and poor ticket sales by Pitt left much of the upper deck empty at Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
The crowd of 50,389 was the smallest in the bowl’s eight seasons, and the partisan North Carolina crowd left disappointed as Davis ended his third season at the school.