The Pitt Panthers have a nice football history. Legends such as Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, and Larry Fitzgerald have donned the (varying shades of) blue and gold, and they have two legitimate national championships from two different eras— 1937 and 1976. In the 2000’s, they have shown some ceiling (rising to #8 in the polls in a 10-3 2009 season, “winning” the Big East in 2004), and a high floor— two 5-win seasons in this century are the low points.
For reasons that escape me, they have not been able to put it together consistently. There is more than enough talent in Pennsylvania to service two major programs (along with players poached by the Ohio States of the world). Paul Chryst established a physically-imposing team on both lines and never managed more than seven wins.
The hiring of Pat Narduzzi from Michigan State in 2015 was universally lauded, as Pitt was to run quarters coverage, dominate on the defensive line, and keep opponents out of the end zone. In his three years, the defense has gotten progressively worse— from 50th, to 62nd, to 75th in S&P+. Those first two teams still managed 8-5 records, but the 2017 unit slipped to 5-7.
The 2016 season was a high-water mark on paper— the Panthers finished 20th overall in S&P. They lost three games to Oklahoma St., Carolina, and Virginia Tech by a total of 11 points, deflating their record. Matt Canada left for LSU, and their offense tanked with their defense not picking up the slack.
In many regards, Pitt is a mirror for Carolina— a team and a program that should be better, but for whatever reason is not getting over the hump.
(Sidebar: with Pitt good for one upset a year, I’d trade a Pitt loss for an 11-1 season. Failing that, they have chances as they host Penn State in week 2, travel to Notre Dame in October, and draw Virginia Tech and Miami in November.)
Last year was characterized by reckless out-of-conference scheduling (or bad timing), and a metric ton of close losses. The Panthers traveled to Penn State in week two, then turned around and hosted Oklahoma State in week three. Two top-10 non-con opponents isn’t good for bowl outlooks.
In conference, they opened 0-3 with only a three-point loss at Syracuse registering as “close”. Consecutive wins at Duke and Virginia put them on pace to go bowling with two wins in the final three games against UNC, Virginia Tech, and Miami, and they almost did that the hard way. A 34-31 loss to Carolina should’ve demoralized them, but they came within inches of springing a road upset of the Hokies. They took out their frustrations on an 11-0 Miami team, winning their finale 24-14 and scoring yet another top-10 upset (in addition to Penn State and Clemson in 2016) under Narduzzi.
The Heels are 9-3 against the Panthers, including a 5-0 mark since they became ACC rivals. While Carolina’s history of somehow beating Pitt over the past five years (average margin of victory: 4.6 points and no wins by more than 7) is interesting and probably due for a collapse, the games in 1978, ‘79, and ‘82 were much more compelling.
Pitt hosted Dick Crum’s first team in 1978, and ranked #9 in the country coming into the game. While the Heels finished 5-6, the 20-16 loss was probably considered a coup. The rematch in 1979 boasted a freshman quarterback named Dan Marino...and Pitt’s only loss on the season, 17-7 in Chapel Hill. The Panthers ran the table against ranked Washington, Navy, and Penn State teams, and finished #7 in the polls, earning the dubious “Champions of the East” trophy from Lambert-Meadowlands.
1980 was the high-water mark for both programs, as they finished with identical 11-1 records (and UNC’s last ACC championship). Pitt finished #2, Carolina #9. They spent a month at #1 in 1981, and the 1982 matchup on opening week pitted (I swear no pun intended) #1 Panthers against the #5 Tar Heels. The Panthers won 7-6, marking the beginning of the end of Carolina’s peak as Crum fizzled out. It would be 15 years before the Heels won 10 games again.
UNC and Pitt have history with legitimate national title implications— WHO KNEW!?
UNC Offense vs. Pitt Defense
Pitt has always had some absolute HOSSES on the defensive line. Brandon Lindsey and Jabaal Sheard combined for 32.5 tackles for loss in 2010, Aaron Donald had 63 BY HIMSELF from 2011-13, and E’Juan Price had 23 as a senior in 2016. This year, the onus falls on DE Dewayne Hendrix (#8), who has had a bumpy career. He played extensively as a freshman at Tennessee in 2014, and then did not see D-1 action until last year at Pitt. He only had 5 TFL in limited action last year, but led the team with eight quarterback hurries.
Making his life easier will be steady-but-not-disruptive DT Shane Roy, and a bevy of young players aiming to beat out veterans on the defensive line. Linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (#23) led the team with 94 tackles, 5 sacks, and 11.5 TFL, and returns to an experienced linebacking corps— the likely strength of the Pitt defense.
The secondary loses All-ACC performer Avonte Maddox at corner, and Swiss Army knife safety Jordan Whitehead to the NFL, but is young and very talented.
CB Dane Jackson (#11) had 9 passes broken up opposite Maddox, and redshirt freshman Paris Ford (#12) was the gem of Pitt’s 2017 recruiting efforts. The youth movement continues at safety, where they’re projected to start either two sophomores or a sophomore and a junior.
If Hendrix is indeed an impact player, isolating him in some read plays will be a good way to neutralize him— but you still have solid linebackers who must be addressed. I can see the quick-strike routes— slants, hitches, and (of course) receiver screens out of the RPO doing great things to isolate the weak spots on the Pitt D.
Barring a major step forward (which, given Narduzzi’s track record, is probably due), Carolina should be able to continue to exploit the Panthers’ defense and put up a winnable amount of points.
UNC Defense vs. Pitt Offense
Pitt’s offense plummeted from over 40 points per game to just 23.9 with the loss of Canada, and returning coordinator Shawn Watson has his work cut out for him in 2017. Gone are versatile threats Quadree Henderson & Jordan Whitehead, leading receiver Jester Weah, and 3/5 of a good offensive line, including NFL second-rounder Brian O’Neill.
Freshman QB Kenny Pickett (#8) supplanted incumbent QBs Max Browne and Ben DiNucci late in the year, and acquitted himself nicely against the two best defenses the Panthers played. He was 15/23 for 242 yards and a pick at Virginia Tech, then orchestrated the upset of Miami with an 18/29 performance. If he starts slow, former blue-chipper Ricky Town is his backup.
Leading rusher Darrin Hall (#22) returns for his senior season, as does Qadree (yes, they had the very confusing multiple variations of the name QUAD-ree) Ollison (#37). Both are bigger backs in the James Connor mold...but neither is James Connor.
Without Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes (#82) is the leading returning receiver. More of a possession guy, he averaged 12 yards per catch. A long list of guys, including juniors Maurice Ffrench and Aaron Matthews, will aim to pick up the slack.
This is not an offense that should be a threat to score 40 points, even on Carolina. They’ll likely line up and try to play smashmouth football, and the Heels would be well-advised to not let them do that.
If Carolina can win at the point of attack, the offense should be able to score enough points to make it six in a row over the Panthers.
The five ACC games between Carolina and Pitt have all been weird. From Ryan Switzer’s two punt return touchdowns in 2013, to the shootouts in 2014 and 2016 (with the Bug Howard walk-off catch), to the Anthony Ratliff-Williams show last year...Carolina seems to have just enough to keep the Panthers at bay.
With an underwhelming-on-paper offense and an underwhelming-on-field defense, plus young special teamers, the Heels should have the upper hand. Perhaps they even let us enjoy a two-score victory.
Carolina 34, Pitt 26