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Game Preview: UNC Football vs. Pittsburgh

After an unexpected bye week, the Tar Heels look to start 1-0 in the ACC

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s try this again, shall we?

It does feel weird to talk about a football game while there is still a significant portion of the population recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Florence that hit last weekend. Just a reminder, the football team has been thinking about this as well, and has been working with relief efforts across the state.

Things try to inch back to some sense of normalcy when the Panthers of Pittsburgh visit Kenan Stadium to open up UNC’s ACC slate. From a pure football standpoint, the extra week off probably was a good thing for this team as it allows for a reset entering a tough two-game stretch. While the weather prevented the team from getting extra practices in, it did allow the staff to jump ahead to Pittsburgh, it’s a question of whether they actually did.

An odd stat: Pitt has yet to beat UNC since they entered the ACC. This includes last year as the win in Pittsburgh ended up being the high point of the season. They have a chance to duplicate that success before a short turnaround to Miami, where a quick 2-0 start would...

Yeah, I’m not even going to try. Let’s see what we can expect this weekend.

UNC Defense vs. Pitt Offense

After dealing with the air assault against ECU, UNC’s defense will go back to dealing with a ground attack from Pitt. Pitt’s game plan at this point is pretty familiar, as the Panthers are currently averaging 207 yards/game on the ground and 140 yards/game in the air. The rushing attack is led by Qadree Ollison, getting an outstanding 6.3 yards per attempt, but nine players total have gotten at least one rush attempt in all three of Pitt’s games.

Carolina’s answer since Pitt joined the league has been to simply outscore the Panthers, but with the state of the UNC offense that likely won’t be enough this year. The problem is that even in what was considered a good defensive performance against Cal, they still gave up 160 yards on the ground. It obviously didn’t get much better against ECU, as the total shot up to 220. The front seven will have to contain this attack better to have any chance of staying in the game, otherwise it will be a long slog.

When Pitt does throw, the air attack is led by quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett is an efficient 65% in pass completion, and has averaged 135 yards thus far over three games. Essentially, once their offense beats you into the ground with the rush, Pickett turns around to catch you napping and gets you in the air. He has a 60 yard completion, but is also mistake-prone, as his TD/INT ratio currently sits at 2-3. He’s had a rotating cast of receivers to throw to as thirteen players have played at the position so far this year in all three games. The leaders so far have been Taysir Mack and Rafael Araujo-Lopes, and they’ll likely be the primary focus of the secondary. Maybe this week will be the first one with an interception. Maybe.

UNC Offense vs. Pitt Defense

We really don’t need to relive the absolute horror show the offense has been since the beginning of the season. That said, there were signs of hope for the Heels as Antonio Williams seemed to find his groove against the Pirates. Of course, this was before the targeting hit that took him out for the second half. Williams will be able to start again on Saturday, and there’s little doubt that Carolina’s best chance of success is to go on the ground. It’s made even more obvious when you see that Pitt surrendered 211 yards to Penn State and 320 yards to Georgia Tech.

Nathan Elliott will still lead the troops under center, and before the complete meltdown in Greenville, he was at least a little more effective in leading the ball down the field. He got 219 yards in the air, and gave Anthony Ratliff-Williams a chance to make plays. Once Williams was out of the game, though, ECU quickly keyed in on Elliott and he reverted to the form seen at Cal. Elliott also won’t be sneaking up on the Panthers this year, so it’s a safe bet that they will have him figured out.

The wild card will be when Fedora decides to use Cade Fortin again. The true freshman looked confident in his limited action, and looked the part of a quarterback more than the game manager Elliott. Pitt won’t have much tape on him to be ready when he enters the game, which should help create some confusion for Pitt on defense. Pitt may overcommit to the pass when he enters, opening up some lanes for a rush, or Fortin may be able to do a better job delivering the ball to the play makers deep.

Special Teams/Coaching/Intangibles

It says something about the season thus far when Freeman Jones has been the MVP. He provides Carolina with a clear advantage in the kicking game, as Pitt’s Alex Kessman has only tried two field goals all year, making one for 33 yards. As the Carolina-Pitt games have never been decided by more than seven points since they joined the ACC, every advantage will be key. When they need to punt, Carolina also has an advantage with Hunter Lent. Lent is averaging seven more yards per punt, has more punts over 50 yards in length, and more downed inside the twenty despite kicking two fewer times.

Pat Narduzzi has brought a steady hand to the Pitt program, and it’s resulted in some surprising wins over the past couple of years. He’s also coming off out Georgia Tech-ing Georgia Tech, not easy to do for even the most experienced coaches. Somehow, Larry Fedora has been able to best Narduzzi in his first three tries, and the Pitt coach is the only one in the ACC that Fedora can claim superiority over at this point. There’s no doubt that Narduzzi recognizes this and will have his Panthers ready to make noise this weekend. The Coastal is wide open as usual, and with a win the Panthers have as good a case as anyone else.

The 0-for streak that Pitt has against Carolina is due to end at some point, but getting a week off may have been the worst thing for Pitt to end that streak. Instead of coming off an uninspired home drubbing against another non-conference opponent, the UNC staff was able to use the week as a reset and focus on the conference season coming up. It’s also possible that the storm help put the sport and their struggles with it in its proper place, and they could find another gear in their first home game of 2018.

To win, UNC has to:

  • Actually commit to the ground game as they have the talent to pound the ball
  • Limit Nathan Elliott’s mistakes as much as possible
  • Contain the Pitt ground attack forcing Pickett into uncomfortable throws

Even in their worst seasons, somehow, some way, Carolina has managed to grab a win against Pitt. There’s no doubt the staff used last weekend’s unexpected bye to shift focus into this two game stretch against the Panthers and Miami, knowing that the potential is there to go 2-0 and change the tenor of the season. As bad as the ECU result was, the game was close up until halftime when a couple of boneheaded plays let the game get away from them.

Logic says that Pitt will finally get revenge, but Carolina should enter this game with a sense of desperation for having any chance of a good season. I’ll choose optimism.

Prediction: Carolina 28, Pitt 21.