THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-1) AT NORTH CAROLINA (0-2)
WHEN: 12:20 P.M. EST
WHERE: KENAN MEMORIAL STADIUM, CHAPEL HILL, NC
HOW TO WATCH: WTAE
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
After starting the season with three consecutive home games, the Pitt Panthers must now hit the road for the first time in 2018. On Saturday, they travel to Chapel Hill to play the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, a team against which Pitt is 0-for-5 in ACC play.
When Pitt and UNC met last year, the Tar Heels held a dismal 1-6 record and were in desperate need of a win. They had secured their first bowl-less season since 2012 behind an offense that could not find its groove. The Heels still managed to beat Pitt at Heinz Field, though, dealing a blow to the Panthers’ own hopes of remaining bowl eligible (Pitt would ultimately miss out on a bowl game themselves).
Through two games in 2018, the Tar Heels’ aren’t in dire straits quite yet, but they have done little to prove that last year’s 3-9 record was a fluke.
Under 7th-year head coach Larry Fedora, UNC began the season by traveling cross-country to face the University of California, to whom they lost by a touchdown, 24-17. They followed that showing by falling to East Carolina on the road, 41-19. And in week three, they avoided a likely 0-3 start to the season when their home game against Central Florida was postponed due to Hurricane Florence.
Some of the Heels’ struggles can be attributed to the suspensions of thirteen players for selling team-issued apparel in the offseason. The suspensions range from one to four games, and to prevent UNC from having too many players simultaneously unavailable at a given position, some have been staggered throughout the season. The players serving suspensions include: Chazz Surratt, the returning starter at quarterback; Malik Carney, UNC’s sack leader the past two seasons; and Beau Corrales, a wide receiver who displayed big-play potential as a true freshman last year.
The Tar Heels may be coming off of a “bye week” of sorts, but they hardly had time to relax. Larry Fedora’s press conference on Monday centered heavily on Hurricane Florence, and how it affects his players and their families. This week, 85 UNC football players also raised $1,275 for hurricane victims by donating school-issued post-game meal money. Saturday’s game could be an emotional time for those in attendance at Kenan Memorial Stadium, including the players. Whether or not that will affect how the Tar Heels play will soon be seen.
Operating out of a spread system, North Carolina ranks 100th in total offense (348.0 yards-per-game), largely due to its 100th ranked pass offense. To put their total offense in perspective, they rank two spots behind the 98th-ranked Panthers. UNC’s relative strength is their running game, although it has hardly helped them to sustain drives and control the clock; the Heels rank 122nd in time of possession.
Behind center, junior Nathan Elliott receives the start. Due to the offense’s struggles in 2017, Elliott started UNC’s final three games of the season over Chazz Surratt, and the two appeared ready to battle for the right to start on opening day before Surratt’s four-game suspension. Unlike last season when Elliott’s insertion into the starting lineup provided the offense with a boost, though, his play has left much to be desired. The 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pounder has completed just 51% of his passes (37-of-73) for 356 yards, 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. As the team’s third leading rusher with 59 yards on 11 carries, he can make some plays with his feet. But quarterback play shouldered much of the blame for why UNC failed to reach a bowl game last season, and it is certainly a contributor to the team’s 0-2 start.
At running back, junior Antonio Williams leads the Tar Heels in rushing with 23 carries for 143 yards and 1 touchdown despite being listed third on the depth chart. Williams, a former 4-star running back, transferred in from Ohio State this offseason and was granted immediate eligibility. He was performing like a top tier recruit against ECU, ripping off 96 yards on just six carries, before he was ejected for targeting in the first half.
Splitting time with Williams is UNC’s leading rusher in 2017, junior Jordon Brown. Brown, another former 4-star recruit, sits second on the team in rushing with 19 carries for 94 yards and 1 touchdown. As the team’s second-leading receiver with 5 receptions for 45 yards, he also factors into the passing game.
The Tar Heels’ breakout receiver from 2017, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, returns as Elliott’s top target. The 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound junior earned third-team All-ACC honors last year as an all-purpose player, and his 7 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown through two games show that he is ready to build upon his sophomore campaign. He is a gifted, explosive athlete who was also named first-team All-ACC as a specialist for his contributions as a kick returner. Considering that no other receivers or tight ends have over 30 yards receiving for the Tar Heels, Ratliff-Williams’ ability to get open against the Panthers will greatly influence his team’s production through the air.
Up front, right tackle Charlie Heck is the only primary returning starter, although left tackle William Sweet started three games in 2017 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Despite the lack of experience, the unit has yet to surrender a sack this year. They are also rather large along the line; the tackles are both at least 6-feet-7-inches, the interior linemen are all 6-feet-4-inches or above, and every man weighs over 300 pounds.
On the other side of the ball, the Heels are tied for 83rd in total defense, allowing 394.5 yards-per-game. Adding to their aforementioned woes with time-of-possession is UNC’s 99th ranked run defense. Considering Pitt’s success on the ground this season, this could be a matchup to watch.
Along the defensive line, Malik Carney once again leads the Heels in sacks (2.5) after doing so the past two seasons, placing him on the 2018 Ted Hendricks Award watch list for the nation’s best defensive end. However, Carney will serve the second game of his staggered 4-game suspension against Pitt. Junior Allen Cater, who typically acts as a rotational player at end, should start in Carney’s absence.
Behind the line, outside linebacker Cole Holcomb returns as the only full-time starter at linebacker from 2017. The senior has led UNC in tackles the past two seasons, and his 13 tackles currently place him in a tie for first on the team. The player with which he shares that lead is Domonique Ross, the Tar Heels’ other starting outside linebacker. And junior Jonathan Smith is off to a solid start in his first season starting at middle linebacker, registering 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
At cornerback, junior K.J. Sails is back after starting eleven games last season. Across from Sails is sophomore C.J. Cotman, a former 4-star athlete from Florida in his first season as a starter.
And at safety, the player to watch is 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound junior free safety, Myles Dorn. Dorn, a former 4-star recruit, broke through last year and carried that momentum in the 2018 opener, registering 6 tackles before sustaining a leg injury. After sitting out against ECU, his status for Saturday remains unclear. If Dorn is ruled out or limited in any fashion, sophomore Myles Wolfolk – who started 4 games as a true freshman last year – sits second on the depth chart.
|Points Per Game||21.0||25.7||18.0||32.5|
|Yards Gained Rushing||687||677||351||434|
|Yards Lost Rushing||66||86||26||54|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.2||5.1||5.2||3.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||207.0||197.0||162.5||190.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||140.3||169.3||185.5||204.5|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.7||5.7||4.9||4.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||347.3||366.3||348.0||394.5|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||5-132||4-94||6-117||5-88|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||5- -3||4-60||4-31||3-7|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-99||3-42||0-0||4-48|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||26.4||23.5||19.5||17.6|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||-0.6||15.0||7.8||2.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||33.0||14.0||0.0||12.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||6-3||6-3||3-0||2-0|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||24-209||16-120||20-189||9-75|
|Average Per Game||69.7||40.0||94.5||37.5|
|PUNTS – YARDS||14-529||14-559||12-518||12-440|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||33.5||38.7||45.0||41.1|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||30:42||29:18||24:30||35:30|
|4th Down Percentage||0%||25%||67%||60%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||7-49||4-31||6-37||0-0|
HOW/WHERE TO WATCH
This weekend’s game kicks off in Chapel Hill at 12:20pm. The game will be aired locally on WTAE and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. Pittsburgh Sports Now’s Alan Saunders will be in Chapel Hill covering the game live, and the rest of staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter. Be sure to check out Pittsburgh Sports Live after the game for recaps and videos.