Just a few weeks ago, it looked like Thursday night’s game would end up being a battle between two of the worst teams in the ACC. However, since then, the Pittsburgh Panthers have won two games in a row and are looking to win their third straight game and get one step closer to becoming bowl eligible. On the other hand, the North Carolina Tar Heels remain the only team in the ACC without a conference win and are looking for any sort of positivity to build upon heading into the offseason.
Pittsburgh (4-5) is coming off a late season bye week, after earning back-to-back victories over the Duke Blue Devils and Virginia Cavaliers. The Panthers will look to pick right back up where they left off before the break, with their rushing attack leading the way on offense and their defense holding opponents to only 15.5 points per game in the last two games.
UNC (1-8) is also coming off a much-needed bye (2-3 record under Coach Fedora after bye weeks), after suffering a narrow defeat at the hands of the undefeated Miami Hurricanes. Despite the loss—their sixth in a row—the Tar Heels’ defense continued to show signs of improvement. While the offense, after struggling to move the ball in previous weeks, even showed signs of life with Nathan Elliott stepping in at quarterback; however, a similar theme played out in the end with turnovers and failing to score in the red zone keeping UNC out of the win column.
UNC’s ability to stop the run will be key if the Tar Heels are to get the victory on Thursday and extend their winning streak over the Panthers to five games. The Tar Heels’ run defense has given up 205 yards per game this season (which is obviously not very good), but they limited Miami to only 59 yards on the ground in the last game.
Pittsburgh has relied heavily on their running backs in the past two weeks, as their leading rusher, Darrin Hall, had 111 rushing yards against Virginia and 254 yards against Duke. UNC’s defense will need to force the Panthers to beat them through the air, as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback Ben DiNucci is not a flashy quarterback but has done just enough the last few weeks to keep defenses honest.
On offense, the Tar Heels will need to turn drives into points on the board, and they will need to capitalize whenever they are in the red zone. More importantly they simply cannot turn the ball over. The team has averaged over three turnovers a game in the last four games. Certainly instability, inexperience, and injuries all throughout the offense has been a big factor in the large number of turnovers, however, as more players are getting experience and possibly with having the bye week, the offense may be able to work out some of these issues.
There is still some uncertainty heading into Thursday night’s game for the Tar Heels because no one is quite sure who will start at quarterback. Elliott took over for Chazz Surratt in the Miami game and played relatively well at the helm, despite a couple of turnovers. It appears that Coach Fedora will go with the quarterback who performed the best in practice this past week and gives the team the best chance to win, so fans will have to wait until Thursday night before finding out who will start the game under center, as it remains a position of uncertainty for the team.
It also remains to be seen as to what the injury report will look like for the Tar Heels. Will Michael Carter be available after sitting out the past game against Miami? Also, will Brandon Harris suit up, and does he factor into the quarterback rotation? These are just a few of the questions that fans will be anxiously awaiting the answer to as they await this week’s injury report.
Other than the Virginia Tech blowout, UNC has remained in most of the games the team has played this season, despite all of the issues surrounding the roster. The point spread (UNC -9.5 points) would say that this game might not be that close, but I expect it to come down to the wire with the Tar Heels having a chance to win, especially if the defense can slow down the Panthers’ running attack, pressure DiNucci, and if the offense can limit their turnovers.
The team and coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for not giving up on the season, despite their record. If they can continue to show heart and fight like they have in recent weeks, this is one of the weeks where they can escape with a win and take that momentum into the closing weeks of the season and into the offseason.