Pittsburgh and North Carolina have been front and center as part of the unpredictable ACCCoastal Division in 2018. The Panthers looked like a beaten down unit in the second half against Penn State, but circled the wagons last Saturday to knock off another dicey Coastal team in Georgia Tech.
Carolina canceled last week’s game with UCF due to Hurricane Florence, but their two opening losses were as bizarre as it gets. In the loss to California, the Heels rallied last to make it a game. The next week, against underwhelmingEast Carolina, they struggled in the first half before absolutely collapsing after the break.
Both coaches have heard some chirping, making Saturday’s tilt big for both sides.
Pittsburgh at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network/WatchESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Change of focus for the Pittsburgh defense
Last week, safety Damar Hamlin was impactful against the Georgia Tech's running game. His role, and the responsibilities of the entire defense, will be different against the Heels. While the UNC offense is far from dynamic, it is balanced, averaging 163 yards on the ground and 186 yards through the air. With Chazz Surratt still suspended, Nathan Elliott will again be taking snaps for North Carolina and his numbers – 51 percent completion rate, one touchdown pass, four interceptions – are substandard. Pitt likes man coverage and bringing the heat, which could force Elliott into making more mistakes.
2. North Carolina run defense
In the opener against California, the Tar Heels seemed to make strides in correcting an old problem. The Bears did rush for 160 yards, but it took 49 carries to get to that total. But the same number of carries for East Carolina resulted in 220 yards. UNC will see a lot of Qadree Ollison, who is off to a nice start at just over 94 yards per game and three touchdowns. Pitt’s leading rusher in 2017, Darrin Hall, is in the mix too, though it has been Ollison that is getting the lion’s share of the carries. Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett can make plays, but UNC wants to put the game in his hands by figuring out a way of stopping the Pitt running game.
3. Pittsburgh must finish
The Panthers were within one score of Penn State into the third quarter. But once the Nittany Lions extended things out a bit, Pitt looked like they just wanted to get out of the rain. To the credit of Pat Narduzzi and his coaching staff, Pittsburgh was ready to go right from the opening kickoff last week versus Georgia Tech. But after being up 24-6 to start the final stanza, the Panthers let a team that doesn’t strike quickly back into the game. Pitt never truly lost control, but at some point on the 14-play, 99-yard Georgia Tech touchdown drive late in the game, it would have been nice if a Pittsburgh defender stepped up and made a play. Pittsburgh has been outscored 34-0 in the fourth quarter this year and that has to change in a hurry.
Thanks to Hurricane Florence, North Carolina had two weeks to stew on the embarrassing loss in Greenville. The big question is, if the Tar Heels can’t beat an ECU team that only returned six starters from a Group of 5 team that was outscored by 20 points a game last year, how bad can it get? The answer to that may not be pleasant for Carolina fans. With Miami and Virginia Tech up next, a loss to Pittsburgh could put the Heels in a very dark place. For the Panthers, what a difference a week makes. Pitt is now 1-0 in the league and with another Coastal victory they would positioned very nicely in the division. Tough games remain, starting with at UCF next week, but so do winnable ACC contests. In a tight game, Pittsburgh finally has a good fourth quarter to put away the Heels.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 28, North Carolina 17
— 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.