PITTSBURGH — Thursday night, Pitt will play under the lights at Heinz Field for the first time this season and they’ll try to cross another first off their list at the same time, as they’re looking for their first ACC win against North Carolina since joining the conference in 2013.
North Carolina isn’t have a great season in 2017, with a 1-8 record coming to Thursday’s ESPN-televised affair. But the combination of a big game, a big stage and a team that’s had Pitt’s number is keeping the 4-5 Panthers from overlooking their opponent.
“Playing on ESPN, it’s time to show out and play to the best of your ability,” wide receiver Jester Weah said.
If recent history gives any clues, Pitt fans at Heinz Field and the national audience should be in for a good game Thursday. The largest margin of victory in UNC’s current four-game winning streak over Pitt is seven points, and last year’s one-point victory in Chapel Hill came with just seconds left on the clock.
“It’s definitely been back-and-forth,” Weah said. “Last year, the game-winning drive they had, that hurt.”
As far as this year’s version of the Tar Heels goes, much like Pitt, they’ve taken some time adjusting to the loss of a senior starter at quarterback. Mitch Trubisky is now playing for the Chicago Bears. In his place, LSU transfer Brandon Harris struggled out of the gate and was passed by freshman Chazz Surratt. But injuries to Surratt have complicated things. With him out last week, sophomore Nathan Elliott filled in against Miami.
Outside of the quarterback spot, North Carolina also lost all-purpose star Ryan Switzer and running back Elijah Hood, making a lot of new faces on the offensive side of the ball. But despite the youth, they’ve played better than their 1-8 record would indicate.
“You never want to judge a team based on their record,” Weah said. “The UNC team we play on Thursday is good team based on the film.”
In their losses, they led in the fourth quarter against Duke and Louisville and had one-score finals against Cal, Virginia and last week against Miami.
“They’ve played good teams,” pointed out Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “The ACC is competitive and sometimes, you lack ‘that guy.’ If they don’t have Trubisky back there, they don’t beat us (last year).”
Pitt fans frequently bemoan the team’s proclivity for early start times and they got another chance to do so on Monday, as it was announced the team’s game Nov. 18 at Virginia Tech will start at 12:20 p.m. Most of the team acknowledged that there’s a special feeling about a night game, especially one on national television.
“It goes back to the Friday night lights,” Narduzzi said. “I think it’s great. It’s a time for our guys to have a little bit of exposure and time for them to show what kind of football team they are in a national spotlight on Thursday night on ESPN. I think our guys will be excited and come in here ready to go.”
But not everyone around the program has been pining for more late games. Sophomore Damar Hamlin prefers to play earlier in the day.
“I just hate waiting around all day to play the game,” Hamlin said. “I’d rather just wake up and play.”
Both Hamlin and Weah spoke with the media after Narduzzi’s press conference: