Here we go, on the quest to maintain one of the most bizarre active streaks for Carolina football: A six-game winning streak against Pat Narduzzi’s Pittsburgh Panthers, regardless of how good each team has been the rest of those seasons. This year, they’re pretty evenly matched, at least on paper: Pitt comes in with a better record, 6-3 to UNC’s 4-5, but Bill Connelly’s SP+ has UNC at 49th in the country and Pitt at 50th, and nearly all of both teams’ games have been decided by one possession: just one of UNC’s games, its win against Georgia Tech, had a margin bigger than 7, while Pittsburgh has 10-point wins against Ohio and Georgia Tech as well as a 16-point loss to Virginia on its resume. Both teams are well-coached and have shown the ability to play with anybody, which is most evident in some of the teams they’ve maintained that tight margin quality: Pitt lost by only a touchdown to Penn State, and UNC, of course, lost a one-point heartbreaker to Clemson. What I’m saying is that this is a matchup with every right to be on national television in primetime: these teams play close games and this one’s going to be exciting. Let’s get into it.
What’s at Stake:
After UNC’s loss to Virginia two weeks ago, this game doesn’t have the Coastal Division implications it could have, though it’s not exactly stake-less in that department, either: Virginia holds a one-game lead in the Coastal, with UNC one game behind that. Because UVA owns the head-to-head against the Tar Heels, UNC can’t win the Coastal in a two-way tie with the Hoos, but could in a 3-or-more-way tie with Pittsburgh and/or Miami, which could happen if UVA were to drop their season-ender to Virginia Tech, UNC beats Pittsburgh and NCSU, and either Pittsburgh beats Virginia Tech and Boston College and/or Miami beats Duke to finish out the season: ACC Division tiebreakers with 3 or more teams are decided first by head-to-head winning percentage among all tied teams. So UNC is technically alive in the division, and needs this game to maintain that hope. Same deal with Pittsburgh, who are 3-2 in conference with 3 conference games left: they have a chance to take the Coastal outright by winning out, and certainly have more chances at tiebreaker scenarios than the Heels.
This game is also personal, however. For as long as Larry Fedora was in Chapel Hill, Pat Narduzzi couldn’t beat him, including some truly bizarre games the past couple of years. Even when UNC couldn’t win a game against any P5 teams, Pitt was the exception. Now, Fedora is gone, Mack Brown is in charge, and UNC’s undergone a complete schematic overhaul on both sides of the ball. But the players are mostly the same, and they know Pittsburgh and the meaning that they hold as a beacon of hope that some truly horrendous teams could still take home a meaningful W from time to time. A win here, extending the streak, would cement those earlier teams and wins as not accidents, but something replicable. These players, I’m guessing, are motivated to not be embarrassed by losing to a team that an inferior version of themselves were able to beat. On the other side, of course, we’re seeing probably the best Panthers team we’ve seen since Nathan Peterman was under center (what a sentence to write knowing what we do now, eh?). They, and Narduzzi, are probably tired of losing the Heels. Safe to say that both teams are getting up pumped for this one.
UNC Offense vs Pitt Defense
This is where this game is going to be fought. UNC has one of the most explosive offenses in the country, ranking in the nation’s top 15 for passing plays over 30 and over 40 yards as well as having two running backs averaging better than 5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has one of the stingiest defenses in the country, allowing 85 yards per game on the ground at an astonishing 2.3 yards per tote to go with less than 200 yards per game through the air, the 3rd worst opposing completion percentage in the nation, and just 5.7 yards per passing attempt... This is shaping up to be a real unstoppable force - immovable object scenario.
A possible breaking point, unfortunately, is in pass protection, which is a UNC weakness as they have so far allowed 29 sacks this season, one of the worse marks in the country. The Pittsburgh defensive line, as I wrote about yesterday, has 40 sacks, 3rd in the nation, and they split them up evenly, which makes them hard to scheme against because you can’t just shift protection to account for one really good player. UNC’s offensive line will have to do its best in pass protection to allow Sam Howell the time to uncork the deep ball that has made this offense tick so far this season. Narduzzi’s staple Cover 4 defense is susceptible to receivers who can win deep one-on-one as long as the quarterback has time to step back and unload, which Dyami Brown and Antoine Green, alongside Beau Corrales, have consistently been able to do.
UNC Defense vs Pitt Offense
This part’s much less exciting, because the Pitt offense has been pretty groan-worthy in all aspects but UNC’s injury-decimated defense might not offer much resistance. Pittsburgh’s 21 points per game are 20th-worst in the nation, and they play at a high tempo with 76 offensive plays per game so that’s not really a stat that’s reflective of a ball-control offense (no team in the bottom 20 in points runs as many plays as Pitt does per game). Kenny Pickett is a mediocre to bad quarterback, completing 61% of his passes at 6 yards per attempt with 9 touchdowns and 8 picks through 9 games, and the run game is spearheaded by A.J. Davis, who’s been decent but no more with an average of 4.6 yards per attempt on the season. He’s scored just three touchdowns. UNC’s run defense has been good so far, so this is an opportunity to get Pickett behind the sticks and force him to beat the Heels with his arm. So far, the Panthers have relied on a couple of drives per game and a stingy defense to their record so far. UNC has to force them into more mistakes than good drives, and they’re definitely susceptible to exactly that.
Well, we know it’s going to be close. I think the week off is going to have helped UNC tremendously, as there were several players on the brink of return against Virginia, and some who returned and were clearly not at 100%, so we could see a much more refreshed roster take the field for the Heels. They’re going to be hungry, too, to end the season on a high note with the opportunity for three straight wins and a respectable bowl appearance hanging in the balance. So far, this staff has done a tremendous job coaching attitude, and I think this is the perfect opportunity for that to shine through on national television. Both teams will struggle to score, but I’m seeing UNC come out on top in the end and extending the streak. UNC 23, Pitt 17.
The game will be at 8:00 PM tonight on ESPN. Pittsburgh are 5-point favorites.