Much of the pregame hype focused on the passing of the University of Pittsburgh's Dan Marino, but it was the top-ranked Panthers' defense that was the difference tonight in a 7-6 victory over North Carolina.
The fifth-ranked Tar Heels, who averaged 31 points a game last season, seldom came close to the Pitt goal line. Their only points came on field goals in the second and fourth quarters.
North Carolina's defense was impressive also, particularly the secondary, which intercepted four of Marino's passes.
The only touchdown in the nationally televised game, seen on a warm clear night by a sellout crowd of 54,449 at Three Rivers Stadium, came midway through the third quarter on a four-yard pass from Marino to halfback Bryan Thomas.
The score completed a 69-yard drive in seven plays on the Panthers' second possession of the second half. In the drive, Marino completed all four of his passes, including a 16-yarder to Thomas to get things started and a 19-yarder to flanker Dwight Collins.
Overall, Marino completed 15 of 27 passes for 124 yards, but his interceptions prevented the Panthers from putting together any other sustained drives.
Fortunately for Serafino (Foge) Fazio, making his head coaching debut, the Pittsburgh defense was equal to the occasion. The Panthers limited North Carolina to 12 first downs and 91 yards rushing.
Kelvin Bryant, North Carolina's outstanding tailback, gained only 58 yards in 16 carries, and only once broke outside for a sizable (19 yards) gain.
"We keyed on him like we did Herschel Walker," said defensive tackle Bill Maas. "We were concerned that Carolina's offensive line was so big, but we were pretty quick and plugged up the holes. Then when he had to bounce outside, our linebackers were in position."
North Carolina's biggest threat was ended by Bryant's fumble at Pittsburgh's 14-yard line with about five minutes left in the half. The Tar Heels started the drive after an interception by linebacker Mike Wilcher at his 42.
Bryant made the big play when he broke over left tackle, then cut back across the middle and gained 19 yards, to the Pitt 35. On third down Rod Elkins passed 13 yards to Mark Smith for a first down on the 17. Two plays later, Elkins threw to Bryant at the 14, but the senior tailback fumbled and cornerback Troy Hill recovered for Pitt.
"That was a big play," Fazio said. "They were driving and could have taken a 10-0 lead into halftime. When we stopped them, I think it gave us a lift."
Fazio, who made an emotional halftime speech in the Sugar Bowl that was televised, said he didn't go for dramatics this time.
"I just told them that our defense was playing super and that if we could score a couple, we could win," the coach said. "But I'll tell you, if somebody would have said we would only score seven points and still win, I would have thought they were crazy."
Pitt appeared inspired when it got the ball early in the third quarter. For the first time, Marino's passes seemed crisper as he completed four in a row in the scoring drive.
"For once, we did everything right," Marino said. "All night we were stopping ourselves with penalties and silly mistakes. We made a lot of mental mistakes and you can't put drives together that way."
Both teams were severely hindered by penalties. North Carolina was penalized 15 times for 133 yards and Pitt 13 times for 97 yards.
"It wasn't very pretty," Fazio said. "After the game we talked about stopping ourselves and making mistakes. I think the team was pressing."
With Bryant ineffective, North Carolina had to rely heavily on Elkins. The senior quarterback completed only 14 of 30 passes for 156 yards and was sacked four times.
The Tar Heels' first field goal was a 39-yarder by Brooks Barwick, who usually handles short kicks. It came in the first minute of the second quarter after a 43-yard drive stalled when a third-and-one pass sailed into the end zone.
Rob Rogers kicked a 48-yarder with 5:06 left in the game after a third-down sack by Maas stopped a potential scoring drive.