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UNC vs. Pitt: X-Factor

Pitt was picked apart by Miami’s passing attack. Can Carolina mimic this with Sam Howell’s run threat to boot?

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt has lost two games this year, both at home. The first was a real head-scratcher to Western Michigan. The second was to Miami the day before Halloween. This game is more instructive to how Carolina can upset the Panthers.

Miami’s redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke played his best game of the season against Pitt, riding a crescendo that began after a tough, close loss to UNC that included three picks to only one touchdown.

After that loss, he led the Hurricanes to an upset win over NCSU, throwing for 325 yards on 25/33 passing. What was even more impressive than his stat line was the fact that he said this prior to the game:

“Yeah, NC State has a great defense… What are they? Like top something in the country, top whatever... I mean, that doesn’t matter. They’re still the same guys we played last year. We put up 44 points last year on them. They have different type of wrinkles on defense… We feel really confident... I don’t think they can stop us.”

Van Dyke took that quote and his gorilla balls to Hard Rock Stadium and put four TDs on the Wolfpack, getting Miami’s mojo back just in time for a pre-Halloween visit to Pitt. He improved his passing stats (save TDs), giving the Panthers 426 yards on 32/42 passing, with three touchdowns and an interception.

It was a complete passing performance, one that Sam Howell is quite capable of reproducing, especially with the emergence of Antoine Green in recent weeks (touchdown catches at Notre Dame and vs Wake Forest).

If Josh Downs does Josh Downs things, Antoine Green and Justin Olson continue stretching the field vertically, and Ty Chandler sprinkles some routes into the mix, UNC can help Pitt re-live some of those Miami headaches. But here’s where the X-Factor comes in…

Van Dyke rushed just once (fourth quarter on a 3rd & 5, picking up the first down with a seven yard gain). What is Pitt’s defense going to do with a quarterback that can throw just as well as Van Dyke, but can also easily run for 100+ yards and multiple touchdowns? It’s not all doom and gloom for the Panthers. They do, after all, possess the #16 run defense in college football (second in the ACC to #10 NCSU). But having to defend against an offense with as many threats as Carolina can put on the field simultaneously is a dicey proposition. How Pitt decides to impose its will, or protect its weaknesses, will go a long way towards determining the winner Thursday night.