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North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh Football Prediction and Preview

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North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Football Prediction and Preview

Tar Heels travel to the Steel City on Thursday night for a key ACC Coastal clash with the division-leading Panthers

In a game that is crucial in the ACC Coastal Division race, North Carolina will travel up to Pittsburgh to play the Panthers in a Thursday night tilt. 

A win by the Tar Heels (5-4, 3-3 ACC) would put them a game behind Pitt (7-2, 4-1) with a tie-breaker in hand. With victories over other Coastal contenders Virginia and Miami already secured, the Tar Heels would need a victory over NC State to close the regular season and a Pittsburgh loss to UVA or Syracuse to claim the title.

The path to a division championship is much clearer for Pitt: win and they're in. A victory over UNC followed by a win over Virginia would secure the Panthers' spot in the ACC title game. The loss at home to Miami on Oct. 30 complicated matters a bit, but Pat Narduzzi's team still controls the situation in the Coastal.

Pittsburgh won the last meeting in 2019, but Carolina took the previous six contests and owns a 10-4 series edge.

North Carolina at No. 25 Pittsburgh

Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -6

When North Carolina Has the Ball

For the second consecutive week, North Carolina amassed more than 560 total yards when they hung 58 points on previously undefeated Wake Forest. It was the running game that once again did the trick. Led by Ty Chandler's 213 yards, the Tar Heels compiled 358 rushing yards and scored six times on the ground. Sam Howell also continued to do his part in this area, running for 104 yards and two scores. The offensive line, which was a problem area early in the season, has really come together in terms of run blocking, and Carolina wore down the Demon Deacons at the end of the game. In the fourth quarter alone, UNC ran for 125 yards and Chandler crossed the goal line three times.

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Of course, Howell can also throw, though he only had 26 attempts against Wake due to the explosiveness of the running game. Josh Downs had his least productive receiving game of the season, but Antoine Green followed up a solid showing at Notre Dame with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown last Saturday. But Carolina's strategy may be a bit different this week as they are not going against the Demon Deacon defense.

Pittsburgh is second in the ACC and 15th nationally in rush defense, allowing just 107 yards per game, so it is unlikely that UNC will be able to push around the Panthers the way the Heels did Wake Forest. While Narduzzi loves to apply pressure and will attack the opposing quarterback, the Panthers have been beaten by the pass on more than one occasion this year. Three times — and in both of their losses — Pitt has allowed opponents to throw for north of 350 yards in a game. While Habakkuk Baldonado and John Petrishen can create negative plays, the Pittsburgh defense can be gouged by big pass completions.

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball

Last week, North Carolina faced the No. 3 scoring offense in America; this week they have to contend with No. 1. Though they won the game, Wake scored 55 points and had 615 yards of total offense. But if you are looking for positives, down 45-27 late in the third quarter, the UNC defense gave up just three points on the next four possessions. And that was without linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, who was ejected for targeting in the first half. North Carolina is 13th in the league in total defense and hasn't been very successful in any area, but at least the Heels have those late-game stops to build on.

That's good because this Pittsburgh offense is a machine right now. The 54 points against Duke marked the fourth time the Panthers have exceeded the 50-point mark this season, and they went over 580 total yards for the fifth time in nine games. Once again, Kenny Pickett was the star, throwing for 416 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Jordan Addison had another huge game with 171 yards, and the Panthers have five players with at least 200 receiving yards on the season.

Pittsburgh was expected to be a pass-first offense, though the results are certainly beyond what was expected. How well the running game has continued to develop has caught everyone off guard and given offensive coordinator Mark Whipple so many more options. Israel Abanikanda and Vincent Davis have been reliable ball carriers all season, but the recent emergence of freshman Rodney Hammond Jr. has added even more firepower. For the third time in six games, Hammond led the team in rushing when he went for 81 yards against Duke.

Final Analysis

These two teams only play in shootout games, so once again expect a lot of points. But there are a couple of aspects that give Pittsburgh an advantage. First is the fact that the Panthers are at home on a short week. It is never easy, especially when you go north in November, to travel for a Thursday night game. Also, the Pittsburgh front seven is much nastier than anything North Carolina has on defense. The Tar Heels have had a lot of success running the ball lately but rush defense is the strength of the Pittsburgh D. On the other side, there doesn't seem to be a lot that Carolina will be able to do to slow down the Panthers. Pittsburgh will win a barnburner and put itself one win away from a Coastal Division title.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 54, North Carolina 38

Podcast: Week 10 Recap, Reaction to Coaching Changes, and a Preview of CFB Playoff Rankings