Death. Taxes. Beating Pitt since they joined the ACC.
The streak against the Panthers may not have reached the fluke level of Clemson’s failure to win in Chapel Hill, but it’s starting to get close. Once again, the two teams met and once again, when the clock hit 0:00 the Tar Heels had secured a one-possession win. Larry Fedora may not be doing a lot right, but somehow things seem to come together when that blue and gold is across the field from them.
Maybe they should ship Pittsburgh uniforms as “alternates” for everyone else left on their schedule. As it is, the Tar Heels won’t get much of a chance to enjoy this win as they have to travel down to Miami Gardens on Thursday. Thus, while it’s fresh in our mind, let’s look at who had good and bad days on Saturday.
Carolina Offense: The whole group came off smelling like a rose after two rough outings. The playmakers, specifically, did what they were asked to do and helped key the offense. Whether it was Antonio Williams with his 117 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 7.1 per rush average, or Dazz Newsome gathering in 110 yards, many of them on spectacular plays, or Anthony Ratliff-Williams winning 50/50 balls. Nathan Elliott even had a clean sheet, passing for 313 yards and 2 touchdowns, without a turnover. Michael Carter saw his first action of the season to score a long receiving touchdown. There was a period at the end of the second quarter where the offense scuffled and Pitt took the lead, but they shot out of the locker room in the third and got the decisive 17 points needed to take the game. Oh, and don’t forget the fact that Offensive Line kept Elliott from getting sacked and kept creating holes for the back to get through. It was, without a doubt, the best effort of the season and a reminder that this team has the talent to hang in with just about anyone.
John Papuchis: This may seem like an odd choice considering the Pittsburgh offense accumulated 228 yards of rushing, 402 yards overall, 35 points, and still didn’t get an interception. Those stats, however, hide the great job that the defense did in the second half to adjusting to the Pitt offense and holding them to only 7 points when they were in desperation mode. A look at the drive chart tells a story of two halves, but it really boils down to Papuchis getting players in the backfield, disrupting the rhythm Kenny Pickett had in the first half to throw some gadget plays at the defense. The defense managed to get 3 sacks on Pickett, and the ability to adjust to what the other teams’ offense in the second half will be huge as the season continues.
Cole Holcomb: The senior had an outstanding day on defense, recording ten solo tackles, assisting on two more, and had two sacks on Pickett. For a defense still missing Malik Carney, the effort was needed. His day was overshadowed somewhat by all the stats the offense put up, but Carolina doesn’t win that game without Holcomb roaming the field.
Nathan Elliott: “What?” You must be thinking. “He had a great day, how is he on this spot?” The fact remains that Elliott still didn’t do anything special on Saturday to justify having a stranglehold on the starting job with Chazz Surratt coming back on Thursday night. Yes, he didn’t turn the ball over and mostly managed the game really well. He accumulated 313 yards in the air, but a lot of that yardage was after the catch, which still goes in Elliott’s column. His one real long pass to Anthony Ratliff Williams was a duck that should have been picked off, but ARW just outworked the defender to keep the drive moving. Elliott had a real chance in these past three games to solidify the starting job for the rest of the season, instead it looks as if we will be back to the game of musical chairs under center with Surratt set to return.
Rushing Defense: 265 yards given up on the ground when it isn’t exactly a secret as to what they are going to do. Pitt came in with an emphasis on rushing the ball, and despite the win they were able to have a good amount of success on this defense. That success running the ball has become the MO of the UNC defense under Fedora, no matter who the DC has been, and with some powerhouse teams left on the schedule that line is going to have to tighten up for Carolina to pick up their first non-Pitt P5 win since 2016.
Freeman Jones: Come on, Freeman. We can’t tout you as the MVP, see you celebrate recovering a fumble on a kick off, and then miss a 37-yarder that would have made the final few minutes of the game feel a little more comfortable. We needed you to be perfect! You’re going to let Antonio Williams take the lead in team MVP over you? Here’s hoping you can right the ship against Miami.
Tomon Fox had a strong day himself, also recording two sacks and had seven total tackles...Larry Fedora avoided a disastrous 0-3 start and at least turned down the temperature on his seat, as a path to 5-6 wins is at least visible now...Cade Fortin never saw the field which means he still has three games of eligibility left before his redshirt his burned...Antonio Ratliff-Williams had that 50/50 ball, but also had a key fumble in the second quarter that Pitt managed to score on, the playmaker still has to learn how to spark the offense while taking care of the ball...Wide receivers not named Antonio Ratliff-Williams or Dazz Newsome had a tough time breaking out to give the quarterback another option to throw to.
As mentioned, the Tar Heels don’t get a chance to enjoy this as they have to travel to play The U on Thursday night. Amazingly, the Heels have a chance to be 2-0 in conference, but they’ll need to have more of the second half performance and less of the first.