I’ll admit that I thought a subpar defense, more of the same from last season, would hinder North Carolina this season. And then UNC handled Spencer Rattler and South Carolina in the season opener.
And then the defense didn’t allow nearly 60 points to Appalachian State. Progress. And a smooth-sailing win over Minnesota last weekend kind of cemented that it’s not the same defense anymore. It may not be a top defense in the ACC, but it’s not a liability.
It’s only been three games, and conference play is just kicking off this week, but it appears that the North Carolina defense is much improved — especially up front.
“Yeah, they’re better,” Andre Powell said Tuesday after practice. “They’re not an overly complicated defense, so it allows their guys to play fast and they’re talented, so it looked like the typical North Carolina defense. And we’ve got a big challenge in front of us to score points. We know their offense can score points, and we’ve gotta score some points this week.”
Pat Narduzzi admitted that he hadn’t watched much of the defensive film by Monday at about noon, but he knew what Pitt would be facing.
“I know the front four is going to be the key,” Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I’ll have more for you on Thursday because I usually take a couple of games, but I’ll just keep my nose where it’s supposed to be, right? Help where you can help, help where you’re best helping. I try to help out the defense as much as I can.”
But even after watching more film this week, Narduzzi still finds it hard to pinpoint exactly what Pitt will see from the UNC defensive front this weekend.
“They play some four down, which is what they major in,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his weekly news conference. “They do sprinkle in the three-down stuff, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see them play some three down. But the good thing is we’ve done that for a couple of weeks, so we’ve got answers for that.
“So, we’ll see. I can see them jumping into some odd stuff and maybe blitzing like the last two teams have done, which has caused us a little bit of issues, I guess. But our protection was much better last week compared to Cincinnati, which was atrocious.”
Pitt’s pass protection against West Virginia may have been better than it was against Cincinnati two weeks ago, which is a very, very low bar to clear, but if there’s an area where UNC has improved most of the last year, it’s in generating pressure and getting to opposing quarterbacks. The Tar Heels racked up 17 sacks last season. That total sits at 10 through three games this season.
|Points Allowed/Game||30.8 (last)||21.3 (8th)|
|Total Yards Allowed/Game||436.5 (last)||382.7 (11th)|
|Pass Yards Allowed/Game||271.3 (last)||253.7 (12th)|
|Rush Yards Allowed/Game||165.2 (12th)||129 (9th)|
|Sacks||17 (last)||10 (2nd)|
|Interceptions||9 (9th)||3 (6th)|
|3rd Down Conversion %||41.8% (12th)||34.9% (7th)|
“Gene Chizik is the defensive coordinator,” Narduzzi said. “Again, we’re going back to a four-down, which — our guys are obviously a little bit used to that, but we’re getting used to the three-down here the last couple weeks, so we’ve got to switch now, go back to four-down protection schemes and all the rest of the things that go with the four-down, and talented.”
It’s not a defensive front that has a star performer but more so a unit that features a lot of veteran depth. 12 players have recorded a tackle for loss, seven have recorded a sack and it’s a defensive line that is full of big, fast athletes.
It starts with Kaimon Rucker, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound edge rusher who plays the ‘Jack’ role in the UNC defense. According to PFF, Rucker has recorded 19 pressures, 15 hurries and three quarterback hits in 204 defensive snaps this season. He leads the Tar Heels with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
And the three-man front, which features Desmond Evans (6-foot-6, 275 pounds), Kevin Hester Jr. (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), Myles Murphy (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), Tomari Fox (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) and Jahvaree Ritzie (6-foot-4, 295 pounds), is stout. It’s a huge unit. And Narduzzi pointed to Murphy as a fast, twitchy athlete who can wreck games from the interior.
It’s a front seven that is bolstered by a couple of long, rangy linebackers in preseason All-ACC pick Cedric Gray and Power Echols. Gray leads UNC with 27 tackles (14 solo), 2.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup while Echols has recorded 24 tackles (18 solo), a tackle for loss, an interception and a forced fumble.
“Again, it starts up front,” Narduzzi said. “I think they’ve got eight starters on offense returning, nine on defense, so we’ve got a veteran group coming in here that’s played a lot of snaps.”
Pitt will need its offensive line to tighten up, a tall task given serious struggles against Cincinnati and West Virginia this season, in order to give Phil Jurkovec to get the football out of his hand quickly. But without the threat of a serious passing attack, it does give UNC more opportunity to load up the box to stop the Pitt rushing attack.
“When they load the box, and you’re running the ball, the defense has no layers,” Andre Powell said. “So, if you crack a run, there are no layers. Some of the things you can do is run-action pass and pass the ball. There are lots of options. And we’ve utilized some of those options. We’re just, for one reason or another, a hair off. And we’re working vigorously to get that corrected.”
The passing game hasn’t clicked for Pitt this season, and for whatever reason, neither has the run game. Pitt didn’t establish the run against Cincinnati, falling behind early and throwing it 32 times, and turnovers (and the inability to complete passes) killed any early momentum against West Virginia.
There haven’t been any explosives, in the air or on the ground, and they’re very much missed. It will fall upon Rodney Hammond Jr. Saturday, who is finally being looked upon as a bell-cow back.
“(Israel Abanikanda) had the ability to explode, and we miss Izzy,” Narduzzi said. “Rodney, we’re gonna put a load on Rodney tomorrow, he needs to go, and you guys will all be happy with that. He was a little banged up here in camp, and we’ve got him back to as good of health as we’ve had. So, Rodney’s ready to go.”
Hammond started the game well against WVU last weekend, with seven carries for 41 yards on the opening possession, but he received just seven more carries throughout the rest of the game. That cannot happen again.
He’s shown the ability to carry an offense when given touches (124 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries against Syracuse and 94 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against UCLA last season), and as Pitt looks to slow down the game against Drake Maye and UNC, sustaining the run will be important.
But scoring touchdowns, which Pitt hasn’t done since the fourth quarter against Cincinnati, will be even more important. And with a new, improved UNC defense to contend with, it will be a tough test for Pitt’s anemic offense.
If the UNC defensive line is able to generate as much pressure inside as Cincinnati or even WVU, it will make life that much harder for an already-struggling Jurkovec.
Pitt will need to establish the run early, burn clock, open plays through the air and find the end zone.