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Pittsburgh Sports Now

Opinion

North Carolina The First True Must-Win Game For Pitt

There’s important. And then there’s necessary.

There’s want to win. And then there’s need to win.

Penn State was the former. North Carolina is the latter.

For the Pitt Panther football team, beating Penn State was important for image. For recruiting. For the fan base’s ego. For the new coach setting a baseline record of 1-0 against a hated rival.

Beating North Carolina actually matters more though. For more tangible reasons. The Tar Heels are the defending champs of the ACC’s Coastal Division. The Panthers may have been able to win it last year if it weren’t for a home loss to UNC.

The Panthers’ stated goal in 2016 is getting to and winning the ACC title game.You don’t get there by beating Penn State. You get there by beating North Carolina.

If the UNC game were scheduled here again, you wouldn’t see the overflowing parking lots at 7:00 AM like we saw back on 9/10. You wouldn’t see the stadium packed shoulder to shoulder at kickoff. You wouldn’t see the sheer joy and euphoria after every score.

It’d be a good atmosphere. But it’d be different. A little lower volume. Which is disconcerting. Because, yes, the Penn State win was empowering. But beating North Carolina is crucial.

Even at his Monday press conference before the PSU game, Pat Narduzzi admitted some internal conflict before making the decision to shut out the media from player access. Narduzzi was acknowledging some inner wrangling he had with sending the message that the upcoming Penn State game should be treated any differently by shaking up the week long pregame routine. After all, as Narduzzi pointed out, a loss wouldn’t have technically derailed Pitt from its larger goal of winning the division and eventually conference.

But it was worth the risk. And hey, it worked.

Or at least in his mind it did.

Regardless, they beat Penn State.

“I thought about closing you guys out today. But then I thought you guys might be mad at me,” quipped Narduzzi.

But in a way, Pat, maybe you should! Isn’t this the more important game?

“It’s AN-OTHER game,” emphasized Narduzzi as if to stress all games are created equally. “It’s a big game but we wanted Oklahoma State real bad too. It was asked earlier ‘Is this the game that if you don’t win it, it’s over?’ No! I don’t think Florida State thinks that (after losing to Louisville Saturday).”

Fair enough. In 2012, ‘13, & ‘14 the coastal division winner had at least two losses. So, yes, Pitt may be able to suffer a loss to the Tar Heels and still win the division. But what other team in this perceived soft division is going to be good enough to beat UNC, but still allow themselves to be beaten by Pitt?

Miami? Maybe. But Pitt has to go to Florida after the Hurricanes won here last year. And this year’s edition of that team seems to be better that it was a year ago.

The most simple route to the ACC Championship Game (wherever it may be played), is control your own outcome by upsetting the Tar Heels on the road yourself. Narduzzi at least acknowledged that UNC is the team to beat.

“They are the defending champions of the coastal. So they are the team to beat…”

…BUUUUUUUTTTT…

“….I’m not going to throw everything into one basket though.”

From a player’s point of view, senior defensive end Ejuan Price says the tone around the team when it comes to preparation has been similar to that of Penn State. “I think we pretty much feel the same way in terms of preparation. Every Saturday is a battle. It doesn’t matter who you play.”

Well, it’s not entirely the same. After all, he spoke to us. So that’s obviously different than Penn State week.

But if the larger point that he was getting at is that the focus was the same as it was two weeks ago then that is good news for Panther fans.

And if the result is the same as it was at Heinz Field two weeks ago, it should be viewed as even better news. Even if your gut is telling you nothing will match the Penn state win.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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