In addition to my yearly bowl malaise, there's been another thing keeping me from getting amped up about today's Car Care Bowl – the fact that I'm actually pretty fond of Pittsburgh. I like the city. I enjoy wandering the Strip District, I've liked my time spent on the Pitt campus, and I've picked up quite a few friends from the area who, once you ween them off Iron City, are damn fun people to share a beer with. None of them are headed to Charlotte, of course, as most of the Yinzers are more preoccupied with the Steelers' miserable season than the Panther's good one, but I'll get a barrage of text messages after the game no matter who comes out on top.
So how's the team? First of all, they lost to N.C. State. What kind of respectable football team loses to a school as bad as.. oh. The State game was the outlier in what was otherwise a very predictable season. Pitt beat every other unranked team they faced and lost both of their marquee games, by three to West Virginia and by one to Cincinnati. They're somewhere between first and third in pretty much all offensive and defensive categories, which is indicative if nothing else of the drop-off in Big East talent after the first three teams. There are a couple of things they do particuarly well, though:
- They get to the quarterback. The Panthers lead the nation in sacks, averaging 3.75 a game. (UNC's defense, no slouches themselves, only pull the QB down 2.5 times a game.) And while Carolina's offensive line isn't as tissue-thin as it was during the worst of the season, it's still nothing to write home about, and we've all seen the mistakes a harried T.J. Yates can make. The Heels are going to need most of their offensive trickery on hand to keep Pitt from just blitzing more often than not.
- Dion Lewis can run the ball. He's third in the country in yards per game, and he's a freshman. Now, UNC can shut down a running game, and only two player have managed 100 yard games against the Heels this season – Jonathan Dwyer, who ran for 158 and, of all players, Virginia's Mikell Simpson, who managed 100 even. Dwyer isn't of the same caliber as Lewis, although the Pitt offense is more conventional than Tech's, and Carolina can stop runners between the tackles very well. They'll have to. Because even if you can reduce the Panthers to a one-dimensional passing game...
- ... Jonathan Baldwin will get his yards. Baldwin has 54 receptions for 90 yards a game, and he's only a sophomore. On top of that, he steps it up in big games, pulling down a full half of his scores in the last three weeks against Notre Dame, WVU and Cincinnati. The other big threat to catch it in the end zone is the senior tight end, Dorian Dickerson, who has been quiet in the last three weeks, but was a reliable scoring option before that.
The defense has a tall order in this game, because at this point we all know what the offense is capable of, and it's not much. It's T.J. Yates' last game in a Tar Heel jersey, (no idea what I was thinking there) and UNC really needs the calm, capable Yates that only occasionally shows up, most notably against Virginia Tech. The defense can't be hung out to dry like they so often are. I, for one, don't want to deal with the text messages.