In the excitement of basketball season starting, you may have missed North Carolina’s victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Pitt entered the game with a 4-5 record, and needed to defeat the Heels to strenghten their bowl aspirations. North Carolina just wanted to beat a Power 5 team.
The Heels were successful in their mission. Along the way, we learned a few things.
The Heels have likely found their quaterback for the remainder of the season. After almost leading North Carolina to an upset against Miami two weeks ago, Elliott showed poise, toughness, and solid decision making in Pittsburgh. Finishing 20-31 for 235 yards and two TDs, Elliott’s most important stat was the big goose egg in the interception column. It showed promising growth and maturity after being picked off three times against the ‘Canes.
I have zero idea if Elliott is the quarterback of the future. His arm strtength is, to be polite, questionable. He isn’t as athletic as Chazz Surratt. There will undoubtedly be a fierce competition throughout next spring and summer. However, if the past two games have shown us anything, it’s that the team has responded to Elliott’s leadership. That counts for something.
Finally, the defense made key stops when they needed to. Though they were gashed on the ground to the tune of 4 touchdowns and 265 yards on 45 carries, they delivered enough big plays to derail the Panthers. None were more important than Cayson Collins’ fumble recovery on the the UNC goal line, which he promptly returned 66 yards to the Pittsburgh 34. Freeman Jones hit a field goal to close the half for a critical 10-point swing.
The defense showed up again on Pitt’s final two drives. Jalen Dalton recorded a sack on 3rd and 10, forcing a Pittsbirgh punt. UNC scored the winning touchdown on the ensuing drive. Then, Malik Carney recorded his fifth sack of the year on Pitt’s final drive, effectively forcing the Panthers to abandon the run game that had been so dominant. The Panthers punted a few plays later, and UNC iced the game.
The defense has not been as bad as their numbers indicate. Every week, they have continued to improve, and they are on pace to improve multiple stats from previous years. That was on display on Thursday night.
Part of the reason for the defensive success can be credited to the overall time of possession. North Carolina held the ball for 27:47, slightly more than their season average. Time of possession can be a tricky stat. Last year North Carolina beat Pitt depiste only having the ball for 18:51. However, on Thursday it was the way they maintained possession that was so helpful.
In the first half, an Anthony Ratliff-Williams touchdown pass put the finishing touches on a 10 play, 77 yard drive lasting 5:22. (Collins’ fumble recovery took place on Pitt’s next possession). Then, in the third quarter, the Heels had another long drive. This time, another Freeman Jones field goal capped a 15 play, 44 yard drive that lasted 6:11. Those seem like an eternity for anyone who has watched Larry Fedora’s offenses.
Against Pitt those drives provided critical rest for a defensive unit that has struggled to get off the field. For the first time since the second week of the season, the offense gave the defense the help it needed and a refreshed defense delivered. The result was a victory.