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Can Pitt Finally Beat North Carolina?

PITTSBURGH — Pitt fans can probably remember a good deal about North Carolina.

A year ago, the Tar Heels strolled out of Heinz Field with a strong hold on the ACC Coastal Division after Marquise Williams connected for a pair of long touchdown passes.

In 2014 in Chapel Hill, Williams and T.J. Logan combined to bring North Carolina back from a 14-point deficit in a final-minute touchdown. In 2013 at Heinz Field, it was Ryan Switzer’s pair of punt returns that was the dagger for the Tar Heels.

Pitt and North Carolina have played three times since the Panthers joined the ACC. All three times Pitt lost by a touchdown or less.

In 2015, the stakes are even higher, as for the first time, the Panthers and Tar Heels are the favorites to come out of the Coastal Division. Will Pitt break the trend or will Carolina get a familiar result?

The theme in the series thus far has been the big-play ability of North Carolina. While Williams has moved on, Switzer remains and can be a dangerous player on punt and kickoff returns. Special teams coordinator Andre Powell hopes that the game plan that shut Switzer down in 2015 can work again this season.

“I wasn’t responsible for [two years ago], I was only here last year,” Powell said. “We threw a no-hitter [last year].”

With Williams gone, Mitch Trubisky is the signal caller. The 6-foot-3 junior isn’t the same kind of athlete as Williams was and while he can still beat people with his legs, he’s more likely to do damage with his arm.

“It’s still a similar offense,” said Pitt middle linebacker Matt Galambos. “He’s a great passer. He’s just real athletic. We have to be honed in with our skills, whatever our job is and just play ball.”

Trubisky is averaging 9.37 yards per attempt, with Switzer (17 catches, 221 yards) as his primary target. But Switzer is a different kind of player than the Oklahoma State wideouts that gave the Panthers fits last Saturday. At just 5-foot-10, he’s more of a catch-and-run threat than a take-the-top-off-the-defense type.

If the Tar Heels are likely to make a big play in the 2016 matchup, it’s likely to come from running back Elijah Hood. Hood was named the ACC’s second-team all conference running back this season after earning first-team honors in 2015.

Hood is averaging 6.2 yards per carry in 2016 after posting a 6.7 mark a year ago. He already has a 62-yard touchdown run to his credit (against Illinois), and has seen an increased role in the passing game this season.

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As Pat Narduzzi noted Monday, Hood’s blocking corps is back from 2015, as well.

“They have four or five starting offensive linemen back from last year,” he said. “Elijah Hood is a great tailback, and he switches out there to receiver occasionally.”

“He’s a really good back,” agreed Galambos. “He runs hard. He’s a little bit shorter, but he’s stocky.”

The Panthers have been pretty pleased with their effort against the run thus far this season, but one long play — a 67-yard touchdown by Oklahoma State’s Rennie Childs — put a sour taste in their mouths. Hood and the North Carolina running game are certainly capable of taking yards in big chunks, as well.

“Last year, they had one, I think it was just an inside zone (handoff) and they broke a big one,” Galambos said. “It’s just little things we have to lock in. We can’t be tired on any play or lose focus on any play. As simple as that inside run is, they’ll still gash you and still hit you. We just have to be ready for it.”

The battle in the trenches between Pitt’s run-focused defense and the Tar Heels’ running game could be one of the keys to victory

“Both teams believe they’ve got to run the ball to be successful,” said North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora. “We’ve always believed that we need to be able to run the ball effectively to be successful. That doesn’t necessarily mean we got to rush for 200, 300 yards a game for us to be effective. But, you know, I know that they hang their hat on it. We believe the same thing, that you got to be able to run the ball to be successful. So I would say it should be a pretty good matchup.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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