UNC at Pitt

Freshman defensive back Dominique Green has helped UNC's pass defense move from sieve-like to stout. - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Pittsburgh, 12:30 PM, ACC Network

Stop me if you've heard this one. Carolina plays the early game on Saturday...

For the seventh time in eight Saturday games (and next week makes 8 of 9), UNC draws the early game and will try to take a huge step towards bowl eligibility by taking on Pitt at Heinz Field. The Tar Heels and the Panthers meet for the first time as conference foes and in many ways mirror each other.

Pitt enters the game at 5-4, coming off a big 28-21 win over visiting Notre Dame last Saturday. The Panthers, who are 2-3 in ACC play, have faced three common opponents with the Tar Heels: Pitt lost to Georgia Tech by 11 (UNC lost by 8) and Virginia Tech by 10 (UNC also lost by 10) but beat Virginia by 11 (while UNC crushed Virginia last week by 31). Pitt's drive to being bowl eligible has been led by their defense, featuring senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who leads the nation in tackles for loss and is top-10 in sacks. The offensive line will have their hands full in keeping him out of the backfield. Meanwhile, safety Ray Vinopal was named ACC defensive back of the week last week after two interceptions and a forced fumble against the Irish.

Along those lines, defense has been the name of the game for Carolina in the Heels' three-game winning streak. UNC has only given up six offensive touchdowns in its last four games, and only one of those has been a passing touchdown. The Tar Heel defense may remember Pitt QB Tom Savage, a fifth-year senior who played quarterback for Rutgers and faced Carolina in 2010 as a sophomore. UNC intercepted Savage twice and knocked him out of the game with a rib injury.

This time UNC is the team with the injured quarterback, but Marquise Williams ably assumed the starting role for the Tar Heels in the rout over Virginia. The sophomore has passed well enough and his rushing has helped jump start the offense, which has averaged just over 35 points per game in the winning streak. And the rushing offense finally showed signs of life last week, as UNC gained over 200 yards on the ground for the first time this season.

Much has been made of UNC's back half of the season being much easier than the first half, but these final three games are no pushover. Pitt, Old Dominion, and Duke have a combined 19-9 record so if Carolina wins at least two out of three to make it to a bowl, they will have done so against quality teams. A win in Pittsburgh gives the Tar Heels a little breathing room while a loss forces the Heels to win out to keep playing. The last two times these teams met, UNC won by a field goal in 2000 while the Panthers slid past Carolina 19-17 in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl. There is no reason to believe this one won't be a close one as well.

UNC 24, Pitt 20

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