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To beat Pitt, UNC’s offensive line will need to be at its best

Pat Narduzzi’s team has dominated opposing offenses in the trenches

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I won’t mention the streak, I won’t mention the streak...

So Pat Narduzzi’s put together quite the team this year. Well, quite the defense, anyways, as the Pittsburgh offense is still being quarterbacked by Kenny Pickett, who managed to be outplayed by Nathan Elliott last year and so far this year hasn’t done anything to raise himself higher than mediocre: 9 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions through 9 games, at a pedestrian yards/attempt mark of 6.0. That’s not really a winning formula, and yet Narduzzi’s Panthers have put together a 6-3 record with a win over UCF and a one-possession loss to Penn State. And though the answer might be obvious, I’ll ask the rhetorical question anyways: How does a team win with barely replacement-level quarterback play?

Well, it turns out that two notable Panthers teams are being carried by a dominant and disruptive defense, at least against offenses that are susceptible to such things. At least Pitt fans know what the deal is... but I digress.

Pittsburgh’s defensive line has been nothing short of outstanding this year. The Panthers rank 3rd in the country in total sacks with 40 through their 9 games, or nearly 4.5 sacks per game. SMU leads the nation with 42, through 10 games, and Ohio State is in second with 41 through 9. Yup, that’s right, this Pittsburgh defensive line is getting to opposing quarterbacks at approximately the same rate as Ohio State, who until recently started Chase freaking Young at one of their defensive end positions. Pitt doesn’t have anybody of that caliber, of course, but they’ve got a handful of talented guys and they play disciplined football: on the line, sack leaders Jaylen Twyman on the interior and Patrick Jones on the edge each have 7 sacks, with moneybacker Kylan Johnson close behind with 6.5 on the year. This spreading around shows that the lofty sack numbers are a product of coaching and discipline as much as talent, and it makes this DL a tough foe in pass protection.

And since this success comes from discipline, you would rightly expect that this group plays the run well as well. But... well... there’s playing the run well, and then there’s playing the run really well, and then there’s conceding more than 32 carries per game and fewer than 86 yards for a 2.6 per-carry average, which comes in at 5th in the country and easily the top mark in the ACC. There isn’t really a way around it: This Pittsburgh defensive front is nasty.

It’s definitely a cliche in football to say that a given game will be won in the trenches. It’s something that we pretty much all take for granted: If you can’t get push in the run game or protect your quarterback on offense, or if you fail to play your assignments on defense and give opposing skill players room to operate in the backfield, you’re in for a long day. But here, it really does feel like UNC’s offensive line, which has been alternately brilliant and awful this year, is going to have a spotlight on them in terms of their role in UNC having a chance to win on the road on Thursday night.

So since this is a UNC site, what specifically am I looking for with the offensive line other than “create running lanes and protect Sam Howell?” Well, the first thing I’m looking for is how the staff will mix depth/rotation and continuity. Inside Carolina ran an article Tuesday about Nick Polino returning to full health, having played 14 snaps against Virginia as his re-introduction to college football post-surgery. Polino started the season at center, but it seems that Brian Anderson has locked that position up in his absence after a run of solid play. Polino played instead at left guard, playing the position (if not the side) that he played most of last year in some relief of starter Josh Ezeudu. Ed Montilus, who started the season at left guard, played some snaps as well. All in all, though, Polino, a senior, has the experience to play anywhere on the interior of the line, which should help Phil Longo and Stacy Searels throw some different looks at the Pitt defensive line through personnel in a way they haven’t been able to all season. Personally, I hate the idea of rotating offensive linemen for anything other than player development; offensive lines are at their best when they have cohesion and chemistry, and rotation makes that just about impossible. Phil Longo seems to disagree with me; in the above-linked, he says this: “if you are in the rotation, you are going to play. If you are hot, you are going to play more. If you are doing well you are going to stay on the field. If you are not, then we will rotate you through and keep everybody fresh.” Clearly, this staff isn’t averse to doing this even in high-pressure situations, like a game against Virginia where just about every offensive possession needed to be maximized against * checks notes * the 10th-most sack-hungry defensive line in the country. It’s fair to wonder, I think, if at least some of the boom-or-bust nature of the offense against Virginia was due to this rotation. And if so, how will the Heels’ coaches adjust to a defense with a just as good if not better defensive front with playmakers at all three levels?

Second, especially on the road, I need to see some nasty from this group, particularly early. The Heels won’t win every play, but I need to see them finish the ones they do feel themselves winning, not just giving enough time to make plays happen (or, as Jordan Gross once put it, losing as slowly as possible) but making them happen, whether that be in the run game or in pass protection. Sam Howell can do whatever he wants with enough time, and both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are among the best backs in the country at creating yardage once past the line of scrimmage. Both just need the opportunity to cook, and if the offensive line can find a way to turn emotion their way alongside some of the battles they win early, that will set up their backfield teammates for more sustained success late in the game. With how UNC’s season, Pitt’s season, and the recent history of this rivalry have gone, that’s sure to matter.