Despite four of their games being decided by one possession or less, the North Carolina Tar Heels currently sit atop the ACC Coastal standings with a record of 6-1. The Heels have now had two weeks to come down from an exhilarating victory over Duke and redirect their focus to Pittsburgh. With the Panthers, Georgia Tech, and Miami all losing this past week, Carolina now holds a two-game lead in the division. This Saturday presents an opportunity for the Heels to really separate themselves and increase their chances of reaching the ACC title game. Here are three things to watch versus Pitt.
Can the Heels shake off the bye week rust?
You would think that an extra week of rest and preparation would give you an edge in your next matchup. For whatever reason, Mack Brown has been underwhelming in games following bye weeks since his return to Chapel Hill. He is 1-5 in such games, with three losses at the hands of Notre Dame and the other two coming in overtime thrillers against Virginia Tech and Pitt. Granted, the Fighting Irish are typically a strong opponent, but the team has largely been a shell of its former self this year, with losses to Marshall and Stanford. Coming off a bye in that matchup earlier this season, the Tar Heels, specifically the defense, looked anything but prepared as the Irish notched a season-high 45 points.
Although giving up 576 yards of total offense is never what you want to see, the offense did go stagnant at times in that game, allowing Notre Dame to go on a 24-0 scoring run. Both sides of the ball have things that can be cleaned up, and hopefully those issues have been addressed over this break. The key against Pitt will be coming out and playing aggressive early. The quicker the Heels get back into the flow of the game, the better chance they’ll have at coming out on top.
Limiting Israel Abanikanda
I was going to make this section “Stopping Israel Abanikanda” but that seems a bit unrealistic. Through seven games, Abanikanda has rushed for 959 yards (4th best in FBS) and 13 touchdowns on 157 carries. Averaging 6.1 yards per carry, he’s got blazing speed and has been nearly impossible to bring down. A few weeks ago against Virginia Tech, Abanikanda ran for 320 yards and six touchdowns, tying a school record. If you don’t think he is licking his lips at this matchup, well, I’ve got news for you.
On the other hand, Carolina just surrendered 297 yards on the ground to Duke. The run defense ranks dead last in the ACC, giving up 186.3 yards per game. The defensive front has shown its potential to be stout, such as when they limited Miami to 42 yards on 24 carries. However, even that felt like plugging one hole just to have a bigger one emerge, as a struggling Tyler Van Dyke threw for nearly 500 yards.
There’s no doubt Abanikanda will be at the top of the scouting report for Gene Chizik. It’s no easy task preparing for a back of his caliber, but my guess is the box will be loaded even more than usual. At least early on, it seems the best approach will be to make Kedon Slovis prove he can beat you through the air.
The offensive line must step up
Our own Evan Davis already did a great job going in depth on the need for protection as this week’s X-Factor, but I felt it was too important not to mention here. Although maybe not as elite as they’ve been in years past, Pittsburgh’s front seven is no joke and they will be looking to get after Drake Maye as much as possible. In each of the last two meetings between these teams, Pitt recorded five sacks and won both games. When I talk about being aggressive early, the O-line is the group that must set the tone.
For Carolina, pass protection is certainly improved from last year, but it could be better. Giving up 2.43 sacks per game, the Heels are firmly in the bottom half of the FBS in that regard. Given Pitt’s propensity for running the ball, keeping the offense on the field will be key in this one, and the best way to do that is by avoiding sacks and giving Maye a chance to make plays.
Speaking of, you would think having to account for Maye’s dynamic play-making ability would make things easier in the run game. However, despite leading the conference in total offense, the Heels are tied for just sixth with 179.3 rushing yards per game. Getting positive yardage on early downs will be crucial in controlling time of possession and allowing the offense to get into a groove. Thus, the line must communicate effectively, play as a unit, and be ready for an absolute battle in the trenches.