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North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Preview and Prediction


Maybe, just maybe, the glory days are back at Pitt and North Carolina. If you're a member of Generation X your earliest memories involve these two programs dominating college football. The two programs kicked off the 1982 season at Three Rivers Stadium on national prime time television with the Panthers ranked No. 1 and the Tar Heels No. 5.

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If Pittsburgh was "The City of Champions," then the Carolinas could have been called "The States of Champions." For while the Panthers' 1976 football national championship was one of seven major sports titles Pittsburgh teams won in the 1970s, North Carolina's NCAA men's basketball tournament title in 1982 was sandwiched between a Clemson football national title the year before and North Carolina State men's basketball national championship in '83.

Okay, Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman is not the second coming of Dan Marino and nobody is saying Shakeel Rashad is another Lawrence Taylor, though Rashad does lead the Heels with 47 tackles, has forced three fumbles and recorded two interceptions.

But when these two teams play Thursday night, the winner will be in first place in the ACC Coastal Division, and the game will be played only a few feet away from where Three Rivers stood.

Sure, both teams have posted 6-1 records against less-than-stellar competition, and neither have been dominant, but the winner will be on track to play most likely Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.

Come to think of it, Clemson played the Tar Heels in the first-ever matchup of two ACC teams ranked in the top 10 n in 1981, a year Pitt finished No. 2 in the country behind the Tigers.

North Carolina at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Thursday)


Spread: UNC -2.5

Three Things To Watch

1. Can Pitt's defense stop quarterback Marquise Williams?

Williams is a duel threat who has thrown for more than 200 yards in five of the six games he's played against FBS opponents and twice rushed for more than 100 yards. He's the primary reason UNC leads the ACC in total offense with 474 yards and 38.4 points a game.

But Williams can be rattled, witness the seven interceptions he's thrown this year. Three of them came in the season opener, a 17-13 loss to South Carolina, where Williams could manage only nine yards rushing.

Two of the three picks came because of Williams' tunnel vision trying to throw touchdowns on the run. So the key to Pitt victory is not blitzing, but rather the play of defensive linemen such as Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto.

Pressuring Williams to one side of the field while keeping a linebacker at home could prevent passing and running lanes, and star linebacker Matt Galambos has already intercepted two passes.

Pitt's 4-3 defense is ranked 16th in the country. The Tar Heels have not faced any defense ranked as high this season.

2. Can Tyler Boyd be stopped?

Boyd's stats imply he's a possession receiver, but in the last two games, the Pitt wide receiver has had more than 20 yards catching, rushing, passing, and returning the ball.

In the past decade, only Kentucky's Randall Cobb accomplished this feat twice. Boyd, projected as one of the top receiving prospects in the country, has done it in consecutive games. 

The Tar Heels defense is an enigma. They are the second-ranked pass defense in the country and have yet to allow 200 yards in a game to any opponent, but have recorded only six sacks this season, ranking 124th.

This is in part because UNC has played predominantly running teams in Georgia Tech, Delaware and North Carolina A&T. But the trend figures to continue as Pitt hasn't thrown the ball 30 times in a game this year.

As Boyd will presumably continue to draw double coverage in UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik's Cover Two, look how underrated Pitt offensive coordinator Jim Chaney continues to find ways to get Boyd the ball that don't necessarily involve just post patterns. The attention on Boyd could result in Dontez Ford making another big grab, as he did in Pitt's by-now legendary game-winning drive against Syracuse last week to give the Panthers their first first down of the 89-yard, 9:20 march.

3. Playing chess with Pat Narduzzi and Larry Fedora

Narduzzi has revamped the Panthers' defense, found gold with a quarterback switch, and overcome the loss of star running back James Conner.

The last two Pitt victories can even be attributed to his gutsy strategy, with Chris Blewitt kicking a 56-yard field goal with a minute left to beat Georgia Tech when many other coaches would have punted or gone for a first down, and the game winning drive against Syracuse that set up Blewitt's 24-yarder to beat Syracuse, 23-20 on the last play of the game was highlighted by a successful fake punt at midfield.

Fedora has never missed a bowl game when his team was eligible as head coach, and the year his team wasn't eligible the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division.

You know how versatile Boyd is? So is Williams. In North Carolina's 38-31 victory against Georgia Tech the quarterback caught — correct, caught — the game-winning touchdown pass.

Two 6-1 teams implies an even matchup. This game could very well come down to a strategic decision, as Pitt's last two games have, and these two bright coaches could easily have these programs meeting in meaningful matchups for years to come.

Final Analysis

The way to beat North Carolina is rushing. It's how South Carolina beat them on Sept. 3; it's how Georgia Tech took a 21-0 lead on them Oct. 3. The feeling here is Pitt freshman running back Qadree Ollison will be able to gain yards on the 112th-ranked rushing defense, the Panthers' pass rush is far stronger, and Pitt is playing at home.

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Prediction: Pitt 27, UNC 26

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.