By WILL GRAVES, AP sports writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Kenny Pickett hit Lucas Krull for an 11-yard touchdown pass in overtime and the Pittsburgh No.25 defense did the rest as the Panthers held off North Carolina 30-23 in the rain Thursday evening.
Pitt (8-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) maintained firm control over the top spot in the ACC Coastal Division with two weeks left after losing a 16-point lead before recovering in overtime behind Pickett.
Pickett completed 25 of 43 passes for 346 yards with three touchdowns and one interception one night he became the school’s career leader in passing yards. His sting towards Krull in the middle of a downpour put the Panthers ahead in the opening possession of the first extra period.
North Carolina (5-5, 3-4) tried to respond but went nowhere in four games, the last a shot of desperation to fourth-place quarterback Sam Howell who was chosen by MJ Devonshire . Howell had 296 yards with two touchdowns.
Pitt can win his second Coast Division title and make it to the ACC title game in five years if he wins. The Panthers could also clinch a victory over Virginia on November 20 and a conference loss to Miami.
The Tar Heels were looking to beat a ranked opponent for the second time in five days. Still, the magic they summoned by taking out a then undefeated Wake Forest last Saturday was gone in overtime.
The expected shootout between two teams featuring NFL-ready quarterbacks averaging 80 points per game never came to fruition. Pitt and North Carolina struggled to reach half that total as Howell and Pickett spent a significant portion of the night under heavy stress.
The Panthers took a 17-point lead before the Tar Heels made a first try. Each of North Carolina’s first three practices ended in sacks and the Tar Heels allowed five in the first half as Pitt led 23-7 behind Pickett.
The super senior pitched for a pair of touchdowns and became the Panthers’ career leader in passing yards when he beat Alex Van Pelt’s mark of 11,267 with a 44-yard lift in the first quarter.
Still, Pitt also missed opportunities to blow him up. Sam Scarton missed an extra point, missed a 54-yard field goal in tough winds at Heinz Field and another field goal was blocked.
The Tar Heels ultimately made the Panthers pay. Howell found Antoine Green with a 23-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to make it 23-13. Howell pushed his way from a yard on the fourth down with 5:34 left to pull North Carolina down to under three. Pickett’s fourth interception of the season on Pitt’s possession that followed saw Grayson Atkins equalize the 21-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining to force overtime.
North Carolina: When the Tar Heels can protect Howell and get saves on defense, they’re dangerous. When they don’t, they’re a mess.
Pitt: The Panthers’ hope for the program’s first 10-game winning season since 2009 remains alive and well thanks in part to a defense that has been hot and cold all season. Pitt found a way to make it tough enough for Howell to build himself a lead and Pickett’s balance in overtime helped the Panthers avoid the kind of ‘Pitt being Pitt’ loss that has become something of a hallmark. for most of the past four decades.
The Panthers will remain in the polls even though they will likely need some teams above them to falter over the weekend to make a major leap.
North Carolina: Rest somehow when FCS opponent Wofford travels to Chapel Hill on November 20.
Pitt: Pickett will make his last appearance at Heinz Field – as a college student at least – when the Cavaliers visit. Pitt has won four of his last five meetings with Virginia.
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