Despite losing its season opener to Virginia, the Pittsburgh Panthers are off to their best start since 2015 at 6-3. However, that loss may turn out to be the biggest blow to Pitt’s Coastal Division hopes. With just three weeks remaining in the season, the 5-2 Cavs not only lead the 3-2 Panthers in the standings, they also hold the tiebreaker because of that win. Pittsburgh’s only path to a division title is to win out and hope that Virginia Tech can beat Virginia on Thanksgiving weekend.
To have any chance, head coach Pat Narduzzi must figure out a way for his Panthers to take down the North Carolina Tar Heels on Thursday night. UNC is only one game behind Virginia in the loss column, but since the Hoos have just one ACC game remaining, and they beat Carolina two weeks ago, the Heels have been eliminated from the division race. At 4-5 and coming off consecutive nine-loss seasons, gaining bowl eligibility would be a noble accomplishment, and they can reach that goal with two more victories.
Incredibly, despite Carolina’s woes in recent years, the Heels have dominated this series since Pitt joined the ACC. UNC has won six in a row, and the last Pittsburgh win came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2009 when the Panthers were members of the Big East.
North Carolina at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -4.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The biggest key to this game will be how effectively the North Carolina offensive line can block the Pittsburgh defensive front. The Panthers are third nationally with 40 sacks, and they get pressure from many sources. Patrick Jones II, Jaylen Twyman, and Kylan Johnson get to the quarterback more than any other Panthers, but eight Pitt defenders have multiple sacks. Plus, the Pittsburgh defense is a lot more than just a bunch of pass rushers. Pitt ranks seventh nationally with just 85.9 rushing yards allowed per game, and they have 30 non-sack tackles for lost yardage.
Those numbers have to be very concerning to a North Carolina offense that has had issues protecting quarterback Sam Howell this year. Their 3.2 sacks allowed per game ranks 119th, and on Oct. 26, Howell was taken down nine times by a Duke squad that ranks 10th in the ACC in that department. It also doesn’t help that left tackle Charlie Heck is listed as questionable for this game due to an upper-body injury.
North Carolina has run the ball consistently well this year, and that will have to continue this week if they are going to move the ball on Pitt’s rugged front. With the exception of Week 2 against Miami, UNC has rushed for at least 144 yards in every game, and they racked up 186 against a good Virginia defense in their most recent contest. It won’t be easy, but Carolina backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter will have to churn out yards to keep the Pitt defense from teeing off on Howell.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
Pittsburgh has won five of its last six games, and that surge has been spurred offensively by increased production in the running game. In their first three games, the Panthers averaged just 87 yards on just 2.8 yards per carry. In the last six contests, they’ve gone for 153 yards a game on the ground, which isn’t earth-shattering, but it is enough to give the unit balance. It’s been a committee approach with A.J. Davis leading the team with 407 rushing yards and Todd Sibley Jr. chipping in as well. Both have been banged up at times, and freshman Vincent Davis provided a spark with 67 yards on six carries on in their recent win over Georgia Tech.
Despite an improved running game, the Pittsburgh offense still goes through star receivers Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack, a duo that ranks first and fourth respectively in the ACC in catches. Neither is a game-breaker, and they have combined for just five touchdown receptions this season, but some of that may have to do with the efficiency — or lack thereof — of the quarterback. Kenny Pickett has only thrown nine touchdowns on the season, and he has also passed it to the other team eight times.
Carolina’s defense is in the middle of the ACC pack in nearly every defensive category. They don’t create a ton of havoc plays, but they do have some disruptive players that can force mistakes. Linebacker Chazz Surratt may end the season as a first-team All-ACC performer, as he is second in the league in tackles and seventh in tackles for a loss. Pass defense has been a problem during the past few games because of injury problems in the secondary, so containing Ffrench and Mack could be an issue.
Eight of North Carolina’s nine games have been decided by one score. Eight of Pittsburgh’s nine games have been decided by ten points or fewer with six of those being one-score games. So this should be a very tight affair. If North Carolina’s running game can do enough and the line can protect Howell, the Heels have dynamic receivers that can make plays downfield. But that's asking a lot. The most dominant unit in this game is the Pittsburgh defensive front. Going against a UNC offensive line that has not been rock solid and is battling injuries, Patrick Jones II, Jaylen Twyman, and Kylan Johnson should create problems all night long. Pittsburgh’s offense will sputter as well, but they will find some productivity thanks to Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack. In a low-scoring game, the home team prevails.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 20, North Carolina 14
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.