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UNC vs. Pitt: X-Factor

“Protect this man at all costs.”

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2022 season, Pitt was the national leader in sacks since the 2019 season. Seven games into this season, the Panthers have “just” 21 sacks, good for fifth in the conference.

Sure, their three sacks per game average is just below their 3.9 sacks per game average over the past three seasons. But this record of dominance in the front seven is nothing to ignore this weekend even as Pitt is struggling in conference play.

Meanwhile, for the North Carolina Tar Heels, protection and poise have led to modest gains in keeping their quarterback upright. Last season while Pitt led the conference in sacks, Carolina was last in sacks allowed. UNC was giving up sacks at nearly the same rate as Pittsburgh was making them happen.

In the past two games between the two teams, both of which were overtime losses in Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels allowed five sacks in each of the contests. In the game last November, UNC quarterback Sam Howell was sacked twice in the first quarter and actually had negative total yardage to start the game. The Tar Heels dug deep after this painfully slow start to force overtime, but the final play in the extra stanza was a desperate attempt by Howell to avoid another sack.

The game-tying drive in 2019 was derailed by a sack after a critical pass interference call on Pitt to keep the chains moving down the field. UNC settled for three points, and another sack of Howell on the penultimate play in overtime sealed the fate of the Tar Heels.

This season, Carolina has improved their performance on the offensive line. Although still not where they want to be, UNC has allowed 17 sacks on the season, just a tick above the median in the ACC. Still, the rate of sacks allowed moving from 3.8 per game last year to 2.42 per game this season is a big boost. The offensive line has improved, but Drake Maye also deserves credit for this poise in the pocket and running ability.

Even with these improvements, the Panthers have the talent in the front seven to wreak havoc. Senior linebacker Sirvocea Dennis leads Pitt with five sacks this season, already surpassing his career high of four sacks which he tallied each of the past two seasons. Here is Dennis sacking Howell in the first quarter of last year’s game. This play led to the Tar Heels having negative total yardage to start the game:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 11 North Carolina at Pitt
Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker SirVocea Dennis (7) sacks North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell (7) during a college football game on Nov. 11, 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Junior defensive lineman Calijah Kancey is second on the team with three sacks and is looking to build on his seven-sack season in 2021. Another name to watch is Habakkuk Baldonado. Pitt’s team leader in sacks last season, he was injured during the Western Michigan game and has seen limited time on the field.

The good news for the Tar Heels is that starting right guard William Barnes, who was injured during the Miami game, returned to practice this week. Keep an eye on his status as Saturday night approaches.

The bottom line is Carolina needs to reverse their recent trends in the trenches against Pitt. Facing another run-heavy team, the Tar Heels must be efficient on offense. The time of possession battle may be a foregone conclusion, so UNC must convert when they have the ball. Simply put, there’s no way that can happen if Maye is looking up at the Kenan Stadium lights.

This week’s X-Factor: protect Maye at all costs.