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UNC-Pittsburgh Game Preview

The Panthers return to Chapel Hill and hope to break a three-game losing streak against the Heels

North Carolina v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

UNC welcomes the Panthers of Pittsburgh to Kenan Stadium on Saturday. It will be the 2016 ACC opener for both programs, and if the last few years are any indication Tar Heel fans won’t be able to breathe easy until the final whistle. UNC’s final margin of victory in those contests have been 7 points, 5 points, and 7 points. Not the most comforting of margins.

I wrote earlier this year about how this game may be the scariest on the schedule. I stand by that statement. There are more than a few reasons for optimism heading into Saturday’s showdown. Unfortunately, there are a few surprising obstacles that may deny the Heels some much needed early-season success. For a deeper preview on what Pitt will bring to the table, read Michael’s article.

UNC’s Offense

Mitch Trubisky, the first-year starting quarterback has shown steady improvement through the first three games. More importantly, he has displayed progress in all facets of the game. Whether he’s executing the read-option, scrambling to buy time, or (finally!) hitting his wide receivers for explosive touchdown plays, Trubisky’s results are starting to match the hype. That’s good news, as Pitt will provide a chance to exorcise a few of the mini-demons that appeared against UGA.

While the competition wasn’t the toughest last week, the deep ball was a welcome sight. For an offense that really had done everything else it was asked to do–short passing game, read-option, impressive rushing numbers–it was the long touchdown plays that were missing. Those are going to be extremely beneficial this week, as Pitt has allowed a combined 84 points the past two weeks. This includes over 500 yards passing and three touchdowns to Oklahoma State last week. An Oklahoma State team that runs a similar up-tempo, multi-option offense to UNC’s. Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer should find plenty of space down the field.

That is not to say that Trubisky will have free reign in the pocket like he did last week. Pitt has sacked the opposing QB 13 times already this season, with seven of those coming the last two weeks. They are going to bring the pressure, and most notably, that pressure will come from all over the field. Three linemen, two linebackers, and two defensive backs have tallied at least one sack this year for the Panthers. They are going to provide a variety of defensive match-ups to exploit what has been a surprisingly average UNC offensive line this season.

For this reason, expect UNC to call more designed roll-outs and run-pass options (RPOs) to help alleviate some of that Pitt pressure. If Mitch doesn’t get any help, either through play-calling, making the correct read, or pass protection, he will not have the time to find his receivers downfield. If UNC cannot find success in the down-field passing game, the running game is going to struggle.

Usually this is where I would argue that UNC’s running game will be a valuable weapon to keep the defense honest. However, Pitt has only allowed an astonishing 2.36 yards per carry to opposing running backs. That’s not optimal and should concern UNC fans if you are wary of Larry Fedora’s willingness to stick with a running game that may hit some early bumps. On the bright side, last week Oklahoma State’s Ronnie Childs ran 10 times for 101 yards, largely thanks to a 67-yard rushing TD.

Moral of that story? Stick with the run game, help the defense, and maintain some possession as our Mac Gushanas touched on this week. Then wait for Hood or Logan to repay your patience, such as Hood’s run against Illinois. If anything, the first quarter against JMU should have proven that you CAN run a fast-tempo offense and still maintain a ridiculous time of possession.

Interestingly enough, Pitt has allowed eight rushing touchdowns, four to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and four to OSU’s Fields. Digging a little bit deeper, seven of those eight touchdown runs were inside the 10-yard line. For those of you who can do basic math, UNC has exactly zero passing TDs inside the 10-yard line.

Yet, they have a tendency to enjoy passing when those opportunities present themselves. I’ll continue to plea with the coaching staff to not do this. Unless it’s a play action pass to the flat, or a designed roll-out/bootleg to stretch the defense, just run the ball inside the 10. Against Pitt. Or any team. But, especially against Pitt.

UNC’s Defense

After last week’s inability to stop JMU’s rushing attack for the first 15 minutes, I have nothing positive left to say about UNC’s run defense. Maybe the players and staff deserve some credit for making noticeable adjustments as games progress? JMU did end up averaging “just” 4.2 YPC, despite running the ball 50 times. After that performance, facing the Pittsburgh rushing attack led by James Conner is a bit unsettling.

It’s true the Panthers are “only” averaging 4.98 yards per carry, and Conner is “only” averaging 4.49 YPC. However, it’s also true that Pitt has used 11 different individuals this season to run the ball. Not to mention, Pittsburgh also averages 48 rushing attempts per game for an average time possession of 34:20. Their past two games, Pitt has rushed 110 times.

You know what kind of team really gives UNC trouble? Run heavy teams who play at a medium tempo, using multiple ball carriers, while running up the time of possession. Everyone say hello to the Pittsburgh Panthers. By contrast, Georgia has used eight different ball carriers this season. JMU has used seven. UNC has used four. Who sees a theme?

Fortunately there are a few reasons for optimism. Burgeoning star DT Naz Jones is back from a concussion, and Dajuan Drennon may make his season debut at DE as he returns from a broken foot he suffered in the spring. Jones (along with Jalen Dalton) was an absolute stud in the first two games, as he was able to plug the middle and force the opposing RBs to the outside.

His impact (or lackthereof) was on display last week as the JMU RBs found plenty of room between the tackles. Hopefully, having Drennon back on the edge will certainly help complement that run-delaying capability. UNC may not stop Pitt’s rushing attack, but with Drennon back, they may be able to contain it just long enough to let the UNC offense provide a cushion.

Additionally, the UNC pass defense has continued to be a source of pride for the Heels. The defense is now up to nine sacks for the year, after only tallying 23 all of last year. That ability to get to the QB is keeping opposing teams from (mostly) throwing the ball deep down field. Instead, teams are being forced to throw short, quick passes. Even last week’s 68-yard TD pass was a wheel route to the sideline, and not an attempt at testing the secondary.

It’s true the short, quick passes are just as frustrating for UNC’s defense, as their young LBs continue to develop and learn the system. However, if the Tar Heels can force a run-heavy team into passing situations, then they’ve succeeded, however minimally, at dictating the pace, tempo, and style of the opposition. At this point, the UNC defense needs any victory it can take.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh fits this exact style. Pitt will continue to test Fedora’s linebackers with crossing and slant routes. Their senior QB Nathan Peterman throws the ball 25 times a game, but averages less than 7 yards per attempt. He also has 6 TDs, 2 INTs, and completes only 57.9% of his passes. In other words, he does just enough to extend to Pitt’s offensive drives, but likely can’t carry a team for an extended period of time. He is exactly the kind of QB that UNC needs to force into passing situations.


UNC will win if they

-Do not abandon the run game
-Run the ball near the goal line
-Stretch Pitt’s secondary with a few deep completions
-Force Pittsburgh into early passing situations.

Pittsburgh will win if they

-Run the ball 50 times
-Average more than 5 ypc
-Complete 60% of their passes
-Put pressure on Trubisky so he does not have time to throw the deep ball