Pittsburgh finished in the bottom half of the ACC Coastal Division in 2013 and is trying to avoid a similar fate this fall. Paul Chryst’s squad is 4-5 (2-3) after missing a chip shot field goal to upset Duke two weeks ago. After a 3-0 start against a soft schedule, the Panthers have dropped five of its last seven. Pittsburgh has unable to capitalize on a favorable conference slate that didn’t include No. 2 Florida State, No. 19 Clemson and Louisville. The Panthers close with games at home against Syracuse and at Miami, so Saturday’s road test in Chapel Hill is critical for their bowl hopes.
After a slow start, the Pittsburgh offense has finally shown signs of life. Over the past two weeks (both losses), the offense has put up 76 points, which is leagues ahead of where the unit was at the start of the season. Much of that success is predicated on the strength of Pitt’s running game. The backfield is third in the ACC in rushing yards (2,229), third in rushing touchdowns (23) and fifth in yards per rush (5.3). While much of the credit should deservedly go to sophomore running back James Conner (third highest rushing total in all of college football), the UNC defense will also have to keep an eye on quarterback Chad Voytik, who is the team’s second leading rusher with 500 yards on the ground. This strong rushing attack has drawn such significant attention from opposing defenses that sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd has been able to build on the success he had in his freshman campaign. Boyd has hauled in 52 passes for 791 yards for an average of 15.2 yards per catch. Pitt’s second-leading receiver has just 17 catches, so UNC’s primary concern in the secondary is Boyd, who presents a tough matchup.
Two weeks ago, UNC’s hot offense went down to Miami and hit a defensive wall. On the whole, Pitt’s defense is a little bit harder to figure out. On one hand, the Panthers currently rank fifth in total defense in the ACC (334.8 yards per game). On the other hand, this group has the third-worst scoring defense in the conference (26.3 points per game). Lately this unit has struggled to stop anybody. In its last two losses, Georgia Tech and Duke have scored 56 and 51 points, respectively. How were the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets able to have such success on offense? The answer: running the football. These two teams combined for a whopping 637 yards (with over 460 from the Ramblin’ Wreck). On Monday, UNC head coach Larry Fedora couldn’t quite pinpoint what was plaguing the Pitt defense, but if UNC is going to have success, it’s going to start with running the football.
“I thought we made good use of the bye, both in what we did and in putting that [Duke loss] to bed. You don’t worry about it or think about it. You just deal with what you have. I like where the guys are at.” – Chryst
“That’s a benchmark. You earn that right to play another game. The thing you want most, first and foremost, is to play well. That’s this week. Then you take next week and the week after that. It’s a big deal at the end of the year to have a winning record. I would never minimize that—that’s big. But we can’t worry about that. I think we’ve got to worry about having a great week.” – Chryst on bowl eligibility
Pittsburgh RB James Conner vs. UNC’s Run Defense
Two weeks ago UNC was carved up by Miami running back Duke Johnson (178 rushing yards, TD). This week UNC will have to try and take down the ACC’s leading rusher in Conner. Johnson is a fast and elusive runner that has all the skills to make defenders miss. Conner, however, is a bit of a different beast. The Erie, Pa. native is a bruising 250 pounds, and currently ranks third in the NCAA in rushing yards (1,367). The UNC coaching staff has alluded to making significant tweaks to its 4-2-5 defensive scheme, and given its futility against the run, that course of action is probably a good idea. The Tar Heels have the worst run defense in the conference (219.7 yards per game) by a comfortable margin, and has yet to prove it is capable of even slowing down opponents who are strong on the ground.
UNC Rushing Attack vs. Pitt’s Run Defense
UNC failed to take advantage of a Miami’s susceptible run defense two weeks ago. Can it remedy that problem against a similar Pittsburgh run defense (158.0 ypg)? In recent Georgia Tech and Duke have proven that you can have success against the Panthers, but for the Tar Heels, that’s a lot easier said than done. UNC is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and 130 yards per game (fourth worst in the ACC). With injuries (Elijah Hood) and a suspension (Romar Morris) clouding the UNC backfield, even more pressure will be placed on quarterback Marquise Williams’ shoulders to create on the ground.
Heels Prepping for Pittsburgh
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