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UNC vs. Pittsburgh: X-Factor

The running backs are due for a bounce back game.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels are undefeated (3-0) through the first three games of the season, and have managed to find different ways to win every time. While it’s nice to see every position group show its potential, it’ll be even nicer if they can put it all together at the same time. Virtually every team suffers some type of growing pains in the early going, but we’ve reached the point in the season where the truly great teams start to play as fully cohesive units. If the Heels aim to truly separate themselves, they must prove they are capable of that complete effort, and it all begins with the ground game.

Through the first two weeks, Carolina’s running backs looked as impressive as any such unit in the country. Led by the bruising Omarion Hampton and the veteran British Brooks, the Heels managed to compile 487 yards rushing on 84 attempts (5.8 ypc) in wins over South Carolina and App State. The backfield was the unequivocal anchor of the offense, alleviating pressure from Drake Maye. However, last week was a different story.

Going up against the big, physical defensive front of Minnesota, Carolina’s backs found very little room to work. Perhaps a little more creative play-calling could’ve helped generate more chances for them to work in space and get downhill, but there was really no need when you have a future top five draft pick under center. After essentially abandoning the run, Maye did his thing, throwing for 414 yards and two touchdowns, connecting with the emerging Nate McCollum for 165 of those and one score. Meanwhile, Hampton and Brooks took a combined 24 totes for just 71 yards (2.96 ypc). Despite the luxury the Heels have at quarterback, this lack of balance is not sustainable against some of the more complete defensive units out there.

Things don’t appear to be getting much easier for this backfield as Carolina takes on a Pittsburgh team who’s become known for its athleticism and relentlessness on the defensive front. Although not as imposing as years past, they’re still top 50 in yards per carry allowed (3.27) and top 30 in total sacks (9.0). This unit has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 1-2 start for the Panthers. They will surely be amped up to play in front of their home crowd facing an offensive line that they’ve had success against in recent history.

Both running backs should see plenty of opportunities to make an impact, but it’s up to Hampton to set the tone. The sophomore runs with ferocity and purpose, always in search of contact. I’m not comparing him to Derrick Henry, but his running style does possess some similarities. Hampton is at its best when the offense allows him to leverage his momentum. When he’s able to get a full head of steam, the defender(s) that meets him first is rarely the one to bring him down.

On the other hand, Brooks is more of a straightaway runner. He’s a smart player and can scrap for yardage but not the same physical presence that Hampton is. That said, when Hampton imposes his will and tires out the defense, it sets up big-play opportunities for Brooks. Carolina’s ability to get both guys established early and put pressure on that defensive front for Pitt could be a big determinant for how this game plays out.