THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-1) AT NORTH CAROLINA (2-1)
WHAT TIME: 3:30 PM EST
WHERE: Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
HOW TO WATCH: ESPNU
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 The Fan & The Pitt IMG Sports Network
This Saturday, Pitt’s football team will have to test its resiliency following a loss for the first time this season. After losing 45-38 to Oklahoma State last weekend, the 2-1 Panthers must travel to Chapel Hill to face defending ACC Coastal division champions North Carolina.
The Tar Heels, led by fifth year head coach Larry Fedora, enter Saturday with a 2-1 record. After losing at home to the Georgia Bulldogs on opening weekend, the Tar Heels have recovered by defeating Illinois on the road, and FCS opponent James Madison in Chapel Hill.
On offense, the Tar Heels boast talent that may worry Pitt fans a week after their team surrendered 642 total yards to Oklahoma State. First-year starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky enters Saturday coming off of a tremendous display versus James Madison. He completed 24 of 27 passes for 432 yards and 3 touchdowns, while setting Tar Heels’ records for most consecutive completions in a game (18).
Trubisky’s number one receiver to date has been Ryan Switzer. Pitt fans may remember the 5’10” 185 pound senior receiver from his performances the past three seasons. In 2013, Switzer returned two punts for touchdowns against the Panthers; in 2014, Switzer turned a screen pass into a 63-yard touchdown; and last year, Switzer beat the Pitt secondary for a 71-yard touchdown. This season, Switzer has 17 receptions for 221 yards and a touchdown, with a long of 75 yards. He pairs with another big-play threat in 2015 third-team All-ACC receiver, Mack Hollins. While Switzer was tied for the team lead in receptions last season (55), Hollins led UNC in yards with 745 yards on 30 receptions (24.8 yards-per-reception). The 6’4” 210 pound senior scored on a 71-yard touchdown last week, continuing the form that earned him a scholarship after walking-on at UNC. The big play duo faces a Pitt secondary that allowed 9 receptions of over 20-yards against Oklahoma State, including a 91-yarder on the first play from scrimmage, and an 86-yard completion to set up the game winning touchdown.
When the Tar Heels aren’t passing the ball, they can rely on former Rivals.com 5-star recruit Elijah Hood. Hood, a 2015 second-team All-ACC selection, leads the Tar Heels in rushing with 266 yards on 43 touches and 4 touchdowns. The 6’0” 220 pound tailback is also second on the team in receptions with 33. Along with Hood, expect North Carolina to utilize senior T.J. Logan at tailback. Logan has 24 carries for 175 yards and 4 touchdowns on the season. The success of both backs is catalyzed by one of the most experienced and talented offensive lines in the nation. Tackle Jon Heck and guard Caleb Peterson both earned second team All-ACC honors in 2015, while center Lucas Crowley made the third team. UNC’s rushing attack will face a stout Pitt unit that ranks 10th nationally in rushing defense. While the Panthers have allowed 2 running backs to score 4 touchdowns in a game, they have yet to concede a 100-yard solo rushing performance this season.
On defense, North Carolina is led by coordinator – and former national champion head coach – Gene Chizik. Chizik was a finalist for the Broyles award (given to the nation’s best assistant coach) in 2015 after shaving 14.5 points-per-game off of UNC’s total in his first year. Despite an improved unit and the 18th ranked passing defense in the nation, North Carolina still finished 95th in total defense after allowing 247.4 rushing yards-per-game. So far in 2016, the Tar Heels overall ranking has only improved by one spot. UNC ranks 94th in the country in total defense, allowing 426.0 yards-per-game.
The passing defense is UNC’s comparative strength, ranking 46th with 199.3 yards per game. This is due in part to an accomplished pair of cornerbacks in Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart. Lawrence was named second-team All-ACC last year, while Stewart earned honorable mention. Pat Narduzzi made sure to single these two out on Monday when previewing North Carolina.
“Stewart and Lawrence are the two corners that are lockdown guys,” said Narduzzi. “They are very athletic and very well coached.”
The Tar Heels also limit opposing passing attacks with 3 sacks-per-game, which is good enough for 25th in the nation. 6’3” 230 pound sophomore defensive end Malik Carney leads the way statistically with a team-high 1.5 sacks. Carney and company will look to limit Panthers’ quarterback Nate Peterman after he set career highs in passing yards (262) and completions (27) in last year’s matchup.
As revealed by the aforementioned statistics, North Carolina’s defense is still struggling to stop the run in 2016. UNC analysts, like Luke Willard of SB Nation’s Tarheelblog.com, recognizes the deficiencies on defense this season, and how said deficiencies may affect the Tar Heels’ chances on Saturday.
“North Carolina has not fixed its problems against the run so far in 2016. That was the biggest question mark for the Tar Heel football team in the offseason, and it is still the biggest concern for Larry Fedora and his staff.” Willard adds, “Last week against FCS foe James Madison, North Carolina did not look good against the run. The Heels surrendered 209 yards rushing, including three straight possessions in the first quarter where the Dukes scored a touchdown. If Carolina plays like that against Connor and Pitt, it is going to be a long day for the Heels defense.”
Though the statistics are unflattering, UNC does possess talent on defense. They feature a highly productive tackler in junior strong safety Donnie Miles. With 27 tackles through 3 games, Miles is continuing the 2015 form that saw him lead UNC in tackles with 128. Sophomore linebacker Andre Smith is right behind Miles with 26 tackles and 2 tackles-for-loss. Smith has earned praise in his first season starting at the middle linebacker position, especially after receiving ACC Linebacker of the Week honors for his 14 tackle performance against Illinois. Also, 6’5” 295 pound defensive tackle Nazair Jones has 14 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 3 tackles-for-loss in just 2 games. Jones sat out against JMU last week after suffering a concussion in practice, but is expected to play against Pitt.
Defense is not the only area of concern for North Carolina entering Saturday. UNC has demonstrated a proclivity for committing penalties this season, ranking 115th nationally in penalty yardage with 85.7 yards-per-game. Against James Madison, they received 5 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, meriting coach Fedora’s disapproval on Monday.
“I talked to all of them. I talked to the entire team. It’s unacceptable and we’re going to deal with it and hopefully our guys will play smarter.”
Special teams is typically not a phase of the game that fans anticipate on game day. Pitt and North Carolina may change that this weekend, though. Between the two teams, Saturday will feature three of the most exciting returners in college football. Ryan Switzer, a 2015 first-team All-ACC specialist, continues to field punts as a senior. T.J. Logan currently averages 30.9 yards-per-return on kickoffs, good for 11th in the nation. Meanwhile, Pitt’s Quadree Henderson leads the nation with 40.8 yards-per-return on kickoffs. Both Logan and Henderson each hold a touchdown on kick returns this season, as well.
Below is week four’s statistical comparison.
|Points Per Game||36.0||30.3||42.7||28.0|
|Points Off Turnovers||28||10||7||7|
|Yards Gained Rushing||797||379||568||763|
|Yards Lost Rushing||80||152||39||83|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.0||2.4||6.0||4.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||239.0||75.7||176.3||226.7|
|Average Yards Per Pass||6.4||8.8||9.0||6.6|
|Average Yards Per Catch||11.4||15.0||12.3||11.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||167.7||330.3||294.3||199.3|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.5||5.8||7.6||5.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||406.7||406.0||470.7||426.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||7-247||11-200||12-329||9-181|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||6-66||9-108||6-66||4-1|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||2-0||2-11||0-0||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||35.3||18.2||27.4||20.1|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||11.0||12.0||11.0||0.2|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||0.0||5.5||0.0||0.0|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||21-192||19-145||29-257||29-224|
|Average Per Game||64.0||48.3||85.7||74.7|
|PUNTS – YARDS||22-933||21-890||10-421||17-684|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.4||42.4||42.1||40.2|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.6||38.3||42.0||35.2|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||19-1,182||17-1,062||25-1,605||15-882|
|Average Yards Per Kick||62.2||62.5||64.2||58.8|
|Net Yards Per Kick||41.2||34.7||41.0||31.9|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||34:21||25:39||24:17||35:43|
|4th Down Percentage||100%||33%||0%||60%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||13-113||3-30||9-41||3-8|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||15/15||11/11||17/17||11/11|
With Nazair Jones returning to the lineup this week, rotational defensive end Tomon Fox is the only noteworthy player that will miss Saturday from an in-season injury. Fox injured his knee in practice last week and is out indefinitely. Aside from Fox, 2015 starting defensive end Dajuan Drennon returned to practice this week for the first time since April, but is not expected to make his return against Pitt. Also, 6’6” 300 pound John Ferranto, the projected starter at right guard entering the season, tore a pectoral muscle this summer and will miss all of 2016. For the Panthers, the injury report remains the same: Elijah Zeise and Dewayne Hendrix are out for the season; Dontez Ford is recovering from a broken collarbone suffered against Penn State; and Damar Hamlin’s status for the season remains uncertain.
Saturday’s game will be aired at 3:30pm on ESPNU, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. For the second straight week, Pittsburgh Sports Now will be hosting a “Watch Party” at Cupka’s Café 2 on East Carson Street. As always, PSN’s staff will provide updates and in-game observations via the live gameday blog and on Twitter.
The Tar Heels lead the all-time series 7-3, including victories in all three meetings since Pitt joined the ACC. However, UNC has hardly dominated the Panthers in that 3-game stretch; their three wins have all been decided by 7-points or less.
Entering the season, Pitt and UNC were both considered contenders for the ACC Coastal division crown. Saturday’s game will be the first in-conference opportunity for each team to validate the preseason predictions. While the winner of Saturday’s game will take a step towards a berth in the ACC championship game, Pat Narduzzi reminded fans on Monday that this is not an ACC elimination situation.
“I would say it’s a big game because they are the defending Coastal champions. They’re the team to beat. But I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket. Either division could be won by a one-loss team… One game in-conference or out-of-conference doesn’t define you as a football program or your season.”
Saturday may not define the season, but the road to the ACC title game is about to get significantly tougher for one team.