The ACC Coastal Division has three teams with one loss who are all undefeated in conference play. Carolina will face each of the other two teams with that distinction this week and next in a stretch that will most likely decide who travels to Charlotte to play the Atlantic Division winner (it will be Clemson) in the ACC championship. The Pitt team the Heels will face is quite good, ranked #23 in the AP poll and with its only blemish a three point loss at Iowa--who as it turns out is actually really good this year (currently #10 in the AP poll). The Heels are favored by 3 at the time of writing but that doesn't mean that the Heels will be able start slowly as they have in their past few games. Pitt is a solid team and the Heels will need to play a full 60 minute affair to walk away from Heinz field with the win.
The Panthers are led by Junior quarterback Nathan Peterman. Peterman has been a solid college starter this year, he has thrown for 1111 yards this year with 93 completions on 136 attempts (68.4%). Peterman is athletic and will run if flushed from the pocket but his legs do not make up a substantial portion of the Pitt offense so do not look for him to have called runs. Peterman has found his stride recently, with no interceptions and 6 touchdowns in October. Peterman threw 3 TDs and 3 picks in the first two months of the season. Peterman did throw two of his three interceptions in the loss to Iowa, if the Heels pick him off early it is a good sign for Carolina.
When Peterman drops back to pass, he will be looking for Tyler Boyd. Boyd leads the Panthers in every receiving category, with 53 catches, 489 yards and four scores. Boyd is an every-down receiver, he averages less than 10 yards per catch, the Panthers will get him involved early and often on Thursday. Boyd will also get the ball as a runner and has thrown two passes this season, acting as a bit of a Swiss Army Knife for the Panthers. Pitt's other two receivers with more than 100 yards on the year are Dontez Ford and J.P. Holtz. Ford is the deep threat for the Panthers, he averages 21.8 yards per catch. Holtz is a quality red zone threat with 3 of his 13 catches resulting in scores.
Pitt runs the ball far more than they throw (63.6% of plays are runs). On the ground Qadree Ollison is the workhorse running back while Chris James will spell him for a few plays here and there. Ollison and James each average more than 5 yards per carry and should give the Heels trouble. Carolina's linemen will need to generate a good push in the trenches to prevent blockers from moving into the second level and allowing Pitt to routinely pick up chunks of yardage on the ground. Pitt does not use its runners as receivers much so Carolina's linebackers will be able to rush Peterman whenever the backs stay in the backfield.
Pitt stands out on defense as the #16 team in the country when it comes to yards per game, surrendering only 308 yards per game. The Panthers are solid on the ground and in the air, but not particularly great at either aspect of defense. Pitt is a bit weaker on the ground, surrendering 4.46 yards per carry. The Panthers do a great job of limiting opposing passers, Pitt allows opponents to only 53.5% of their passes. The Heels will need to find weaknesses in Pitt's defense and exploit them if they want to win this game--most likely by picking on corners down the Panther's depth chart. Look for Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard to get a lot of early targets to try to find the weaknesses in the Panther defense.
Play a Complete Game:
Carolina's best play of the season was on the road at Georgia Tech. In that game the offense and defense came together to beat up the Yellow Jackets on both sides of the ball. The Heels will need to play with sustained effort for all 60 minutes Thursday on both sides of the ball to beat Pitt. The Panthers are well coached and will not make mistakes. Carolina needs to play hard on both sides of the ball and focus to win this game.
Marquise Williams Needs to Shine:
Marquise Williams has been rusty out of the gate in the past few games but this Pitt defense will not be as forgiving as the Heels' most recent opponents. Williams needs to start this game sharp and avoid the early turnovers that plagued him against UVA and Wake Forest. Look for Williams to run early, the coaching staff likes to get him used to game speed with a few early runs. The runs would also make Pitt show how they want to cover Williams early in the game. This would allow the Heels to make adjustments and exploit the weaknesses that Pitt would create by committing players to stopping Williams.
Make Pitt Throw:
Against Virginia Carolina's run defense looked almost as bad as last year's defense. The Panthers have no reason to force their mediocre passing game to make plays while their run game has averaged more than 5 yards per carry with their primary running backs. Carolina should let Des Lawrence follow Boyd around and put eight men in the box on almost every play until Peterman proves that he can beat you.