THE MATCHUP: PITT (4-5) VS NORTH CAROLINA (1-8)
WHEN: 7:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
Pitt’s opponent Thursday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels, is the perfect team to place their 2017 season in perspective. Both teams finished 2016 with an 8-5 record, and each lost many of its integral contributors to graduation and/or the NFL following the season. However, while the Panthers are 4-5 and remain in the hunt for a bowl game, the Heels have managed just one win in nine games.
If Pitt’s season has been disappointing to Panther fans, then North Carolina’s season must be close to demoralizing for its fan base.
Under 6th year head coach Larry Fedora, UNC will fail to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2012, when self-imposed sanctions prevented an 8-4 squad from participating in postseason play. The Tar Heels’ most significant victory – their only victory – came at Old Dominion in week three. Of their losses, the ones to Duke and Virginia stand out the most, since Pitt defeated both teams in recent weeks.
Like Pitt, UNC’s offense has regressed in 2017 due to the departures of almost every significant contributor from last season. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky declared for the NFL after one season as the Tar Heels’ starter and was selected second overall in the draft. Tailbacks Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, the team’s top two tailbacks last year, are also now in the NFL. Second-team All-ACC offensive linemen Jon Heck and Lucas Crowley graduated. And receivers Mack Hollins (NFL), Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer are all gone.
Yes, Ryan Switzer is gone. The speedy slot receiver/returnman that torched Pitt four years in a row was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
Without the aforementioned players, UNC’s offense has fallen towards the bottom of the FBS; their 344.2 total yards-per-game ranks 108th, while their 21.3 points-per-game ranks 109th. Although their entire offense bears responsibility for their languid play, the root of their regression can be traced to the quarterback position.
Last season, Mitchell Trubisky burst onto the scene as an NFL-caliber quarterback who committed few turnovers. Currently tied for 121st in the FBS with 14 passes intercepted, Trubisky’s heirs are having trouble keeping the ball out of defenders’ hands. Redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt has been the primary starter with the most respectable stat line and appears slated to start Thursday. Surratt has completed 105 of 181 passes for 1,284 yards, 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He also has the second most rushing attempts on the team with 84, although his average of 1.8 yards-per-carry leaves much to be desired. In North Carolina’s last game, Surratt was forced to leave due to injury, allowing for sophomore Nathan Elliott to earn his first meaningful playing time as a Tar Heel. Despite throwing 3 interceptions, Elliot has drawn solid reviews for providing the UNC offense with the spark it has lacked at many times this season.
Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU, has also seen action at quarterback in six games this season. However, with 1 touchdown, 8 interceptions and a completion percentage of 49.3%, Harris’ stint as a Tar Heel hasn’t been the season of redemption he sought when leaving LSU.
Without Switzer, Hollins and Howard, the Tar Heels needed a new crop of receivers to step up this year. Leading the way at wideout Thursday night will be Anthony Ratliff-Williams, especially with Austin Proehl lost for the season. Ratliff-Williams, a 6-foot-1-inch sophomore, has 20 receptions for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season. With 20 receptions of his own for 251 yards, Jordan Cunningham is UNC’s other primary option at receiver.
At tailback, Jordon Brown and Michael Carter have emerged as the replacements for Hood and Logan. Brown has 459 yards and 3 touchdowns on 104 carries, and another 176 yards on a team-high 24 receptions. With 67 carries, Carter does not touch the ball as much as Brown, but his 403 yards and 7 rushing touchdowns show that he can produce when given the ball.
Although the drop-off at quarterback receives the most credit for UNC’s offensive ineptitude this season, their offensive line deserves its fair share of criticism, too. The unit is tied for 100th in sacks allowed, and on the ground, they block for the 98th ranked rushing attack in the FBS. The combination of an ineffective run game and poor pass protection has made it difficult for the Heels to sustain drives; they rank 121st in time of possession.
On the other side of the ball, UNC’s defense has been as underwhelming as its offense. Allowing 447.1 yards-per-game (110th in the FBS) and 33.4 points-per-game (105th), the defense isn’t placing the Tar Heels in position to win, either.
Up front, the Tar Heels’ defensive front-four has a few “or’s” listed on the depth chart – four, to be exact – which typically isn’t a good sign. Regardless of whether or not he starts, Malik Carney is the lineman most likely to register a couple of splash plays. The junior defensive end has 44 tackles, 9.0 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble.
Behind the defensive line is UNC’s strongest positional group, the linebackers. After losing 2016 honorable mention All-ACC middle linebacker Andre Smith for the season against Notre Dame, Cole Holcomb moved from Will linebacker to the middle and has impressed; his 83 total tackles leads the team and is tied for 4th in the ACC. Sam linebacker Cayson Collins is also performing well in his senior year with 74 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.
Against the pass, the Tar Heels’ secondary is allowing 242.0 passing yards-per-game, tied for 86th in the FBS. Senior cornerback M.J. Stewart, an honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2016, highlights the cornerbacks, while sophomore free safety Myles Dorn leads the safeties. Dorn, a first-year starter, has 55 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.
|Points Per Game||24.2||27.9||21.3||33.4|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1578||1614||1575||2039|
|Yards Lost Rushing||270||203||336||193|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.8||4.5||3.8||4.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||145.3||156.8||137.7||205.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||218.4||263.9||206.6||242.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.3||6.3||4.9||5.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||363.8||420.7||344.2||447.1|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||27-496||21-471||33-782||21-441|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||16-312||15-210||14-138||21-261|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||8-84||6-61||6-83||14-290|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||18.4||22.4||23.7||21.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||19.5||14.0||9.9||12.4|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||10.5||10.2||13.8||20.7|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||9-5||9-6||14-6||16-6|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||39-384||40-319||70-647||49-427|
|Average Per Game||42.7||35.4||71.9||47.4|
|PUNTS – YARDS||44-1920||42-1788||59-2682||47-1963|
|Net Yards Per Punt||37.5||35.1||40.4||37.6|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:31||27:29||26:36||33:24|
|4th Down Percentage||62.5%||46.7%||57.9%||72.7%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||14-109||23-187||19-97||24-199|
North Carolina possesses perhaps the lengthiest injury report in college football. Although no one is listed as “probable” or “doubtful” for Thursday, linebackers Ayden Bonilla and Dominique Ross are “out,” and eighteen players have been lost for the season. Linebacker Andre Smith, safety Donnie Miles and wide receiver Austin Proehl are the most significant names among those lost for the season.
For Pitt, Keyshon Camp, Dewayne Hendrix, Avonte Maddox and Anthony McKee, Jr. are “probable.” George Aston, Matt Flanagan and Malik Henderson have been ruled out.
HOW/WHERE TO WATCH
Pitt versus UNC kicks off at 7:30 Thursday night at Heinz Field. The game will be aired on ESPN and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.
Although UNC’s season has been dismal thus far, it was not long ago that Pitt was seeking its first win of the season over a Power-5 opponent, too. North Carolina has had the Panthers’ number in recent years, winning all four meetings since Pitt joined the ACC, and they may see Pitt as an opportunity to get their first Power-5 victory.
On Monday, Coach Narduzzi asserted that the Heels are a much tougher team than their record indicates. On paper, UNC seems like Pitt’s next logical victory towards bowl eligibility, but a win won’t come easy against this familiar ACC Coasta