UNC went on the road and snagged a 26-19 win over Pitt to position itself for a run at the Coastal Division. Here are some thoughts on that.
Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart came up big.
A year ago the UNC pass defense was much maligned. That's no longer the case thanks in part to the play of cornerbacks Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart. The latter sat out the last two games serving a suspension after an assault arrest prior to UNC's 50-14 win over Wake Forest. Stewart wasted little time making his presence felt with six tackles, four pass breakups, a sack and tackle for loss. Lawrence also recorded a tackle for loss while breaking up four passes and recording seven tackles.
The overall pass defense ended up with one of its worst efforts of the season from a statistical standpoint with Pitt's Nate Peterman throwing for 262 yards. That is the first time all season UNC has allowed more than 200 yards passing in a game. Despite Pitt's ability to move the ball through the air, the Tar Heels managed enough big plays to keep Pitt from getting more point production out of those yards. Stewart and Lawrence were key to that with crucial defensive plays throughout.
UNC wins another tough game where the offense struggled
Last week versus Virginia, UNC churned through a sloppy game where the offense didn't really get traction and the scoring was well off the season average. In the first half versus Pittsburgh, UNC looked back on track with four straight scoring possession resulting in 20 points. With the Tar Heels getting the ball to start the second half, the conventional wisdom was if the Tar Heels could keep it rolling the game would be well in hand by the fourth quarter.
Pitt had different designs holding UNC to six second half points on six possessions. While UNC was able to move the ball some, too often drives stalled and it felt like Larry Fedora was being more conservative with fourth and short calls. The lack of offense put winning the game squarely on the defense which responded well enough to keep the Panthers at bay.
The key drive of the second half was UNC's 4:25 series ending with a Nick Weiler field goal. While a touchdown would have been ideal since it would have given the Tar Heels a three score lead, putting together that sort of drive was crucial to winning the game. UNC came up with a 3rd and 12 conversion on a Marquise Williams pass to Kendrick Singleton after Williams was flushed from the pocket and moving to his right. The ability to sustain that drive burned enough clock to make a Panther comeback very difficult.
A year ago, offensive struggles would have spelled certain doom for this team. UNC was giving up almost 40 ppg so it was shootout or bust for UNC to win games. That is no longer the case now that the defense is making enough plays to keep opposing teams in check.
What a difference reliable place kicking makes
Last season, UNC's kicking woes were almost comical to the point anything beyond 20 yards was considered extremely risky. This season Nick Weiler's turnaround from last season's struggles has given the Tar Heels some extra comfort in knowing at least three points are available on drives inside the opposing 30 yard line.
Last season the combo of Weiler and Thomas Moore hit just 6-of-13 on field goals and nothing over 30 yards. Through eight games, Weiler alone has attempted 16 field goals and made 14 of them including two over 40 yards. His 4-for-4 effort versus Pittsburgh ended up being the difference in the game. Pitt's stingy second half defense kept the Tar Heels out of the end zone but not off the scoreboard thanks to Weiler's newfound accuracy.
The offensive line stepped up
Overall this season the offensive line has acquitted itself well despite various questions regarding the quality of depth. The running game has been effective and UNC is ranked 3rd in the ACC in sacks allowed with just 10.0. Granted Williams' mobility helps in this regard but the line has done a solid job in most cases.
Pittsburgh provided the Tar Heel OL with its toughest challenge to date. The Panthers entered the game 2nd in the ACC and 14th nationally in sacks with 22.0 through seven contests. UNC's offensive line held tough giving Williams time to throw and keeping him clean with zero sacks surrendered. The Panthers did record six quarterback hurries but for the most part Williams had time to do what he needed to in the pocket.
UNC finally getting some respect
The loss to South Carolina will forever be a mystery to people. In fact UNC's performance versus Pittsburgh leads many to ask how the Tar Heels managed to lose to a Gamecock team that is simply awful. The fact it was a season opener had some bearing on UNC's play but even then the loss has not been easily discounted. UNC's absence from the polls despite having just one loss was due in part to the loss to South Carolina. That stumble has proven to be a hindrance in how analysts view the Tar Heels.
This win will serve to alleviate some of those concerns and elevate the Tar Heels in the eyes of many. However UNC can ill afford to let off the gas. The next step is giving continued credence to that validation by knocking off another ranked team. UNC gets Duke next Saturday in Chapel Hill. Presuming the Blue Devils dispatch Miami on Halloween night it will be the first time since 1939 both teams have been ranked when playing each other.
The stakes were high this week at Pitt but next week they will be even higher with a healthy dose of bitter rivalry thrown in.