PITTSBURGH — Thursday night primetime on ESPN, is usually a good thing for a college football program, right?
Not for Pitt, on this specific Thursday night. Not when the Pittsburgh Steelers play on that same night in an important game against the Cleveland Browns, in a game that has significant playoff implications on the line.
It’s one of the pitfalls of sharing a market with a professional sports team and one that’s likely going to rear its ugly head in the form of a significantly reduced turnout for the Panthers on Thursday night.
But the ACC, ESPN, Pitt and the NFL couldn’t work around the issue.
“What are we doing here?,” Narduzzi said about the scheduling. “It’s not good for the ACC when you are playing on the same night as an NFL franchise in your same city. It’d be different if the Cowboys were playing the Seattle Seahawks, or something like that. … But it’s the same city, two hours away.”
Pitt didn’t have a say in the process because of the way that the schedules come out.
“Our schedule came out before theirs,” Narduzzi said. “When it comes to some NFL franchises and college football conferences, they have to start to look and say, ‘What makes sense for the city of Pittsburgh?’ That obviously wasn’t done (in this case).”
This Thursday night’s game against UNC will be the Panthers’ 24th game on ESPN’s Thursday night package in the history of the program.
STRUGGLES AGAINST UNC
Pitt has lost six consecutive games against the Tar Heels and UNC is currently the only ACC Coastal Division team that Pitt has yet to beat since joining the conference 2013.
UNC leads the all-time series 10-3 over the Panthers. The last time Pitt beat North Carolina was in 2009 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (19-17).
“We’ve got a North Carolina team (coming in on Thursday) that we have struggled with in the past,” Narduzzi said. “If you ask our kids, they will tell you that North Carolina has some of the most talented guys that they play against every year.”
The Heels are now directed under head coach Mack Brown, who is back with the program for his second stint. Brown is now in his 11th season overall at UNC and has a 73-51-1 all-time record. In his 31 years as a college head coach, Brown has never faced Pitt.
Pitt has hosted North Carolina on Thursday night in three consecutive meetings. UNC won the prior two games in 2015 and 2017.
A PRIME TIME CHALLENGE
UNC has been known to put some points on the scoreboard against Pitt in recent years, but Pitt has arguably their best defense this season since joining the ACC.
North Carolina’s offense is led by freshman quarterback Sam Howell. Howell ranks No. 2 in the ACC in passing this season. He has thrown 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his first nine games as a college quarterback.
“He’s the difference on offense,” Narduzzi said about Howell leading UNC’s offense. “He’s really good. He’s a freshman, he makes good decisions and he’s very accurate with the ball.”
But Howell isn’t the only bright spot on Mack Brown’s offense.
“They have a talented backfield, (their) receivers are talented (and) they got players,” Narduzzi said.
Pitt’s defense is still the leading the country in sacks with 40 on the season.
Howell will certainly be pressured throughout the game, and the way that these two teams have faced off against each other in the past, the game will most likely come down to Howell being able to handle that Panther pressure and whether or not he will get his team in the end zone on the final possession of the game.
SEEKING THE END ZONE
Pitt has only scored 36 points in their last two ACC games. The offensive fire power and balance has been the kryptonite in all of the Panthers’ three loses this season.
Against Virginia, Pitt scored 14 points. Against Penn State, Pitt scored 10 points. Against Miami, Pitt scored 12 points.
Getting in the end zone on the offensive end is crucial to the success of this Pitt team. Narduzzi thinks that there have been strides of that, but it’s still not showing on a consistent basis.
“It’s game by game,” Narduzzi said of his offense being able to march down the field well enough against teams who like to score a ton of points. “I think our offense has shown, when it becomes a high scoring game that they can match it.”
LIVING UP TO 97
Just a year ago, Pitt defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman was just a redshirt freshman who only started one game for the Panthers in 2018. Twyman wore number 55 and was just a guy who put his head down and worked for the opportunity that he has been awarded with this season.
Twyman asked Narduzzi prior to this season if he could wear number 97 this year. That brings along a whole new challenge for the 6-foot-2, 290-pounder who wants to follow in the steps of former Panther legend Aaron Donald.
“I said if you study like 97 and you play like 97 then we’ll give you 97,” Narduzzi said. “(Twyman) waited his turn. He didn’t ask for it out of high school. That’s his idol, that’s who he wants to be. …and he’s played hard like (Donald).”
Twyman ranks No. 3 in the ACC with seven total sacks on the season. Twyman also has 8 tackles for loss and 26 total tackles, still with three regular season games remaining for the Panthers.