Heels Bracing for Physical Test

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Miami’s Duke Johnson showcased his ability to run around UNC defenders two weeks ago. Pittsburgh will employ a different approach in its ground game against the Tar Heels this weekend.

Pitt running back James Conner leads the ACC with 149.1 rushing yards per game, while Johnson ranks second with 134.8 yards per game. The similarities, by and large, end there in trying to compare the rushing attacks.

“Pitt tries to outnumber you and do a lot more with angles and getting more people at the point of attack than Miami,” UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said following Wednesday’s practice. “Miami was more of a traditional pro-style running team. Pitt will just do a few unorthodox things and try to get you outnumbered and out leveraged.”

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Conner has totaled 1,342 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns through nine games this season behind an offensive line that averages 318 pounds per position and a fullback in Jaymar Parrish that weighs 270 pounds.

UNC’s starting defensive line averages 264 pounds per position.

“Some of their run concepts are extremely tough to stop because they add so many people at the point of attack, similar to like Wisconsin used to,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said, referencing Pitt head coach Paul Chryst’s days as the Badgers’ offensive coordinator.

UNC rush tackle Justin Thomason offered a more succinct description of Pitt’s intentions.

“We know Pitt is going to try to run it down our throat,” Thomason said. “They’re just going to line up and try to bully us, so we’ve definitely got to be ready for the run.”

Koenning hinted last week at toying around with schematic changes to his 4-2-5 base, such as switching to a 4-3 or 50 front. UNC head coach Larry Fedora played coy on Wednesday when asked if his squad’s defensive adjustments for Saturday’s game included more beef up front.

Koenning told reporters that adjustments have been made, but stressed that UNC wouldn’t be scrapping its defensive identity as they needed to stay within the framework of their scheme to allow the younger players an opportunity to be successful.

What makes Pitt’s ground game (247.7 ypg, 18th nationally) even more effective is Chryst’s willingness to make significant adjustments for each opponent. For example, Pitt utilized a heavy dose or zone reads against Virginia Tech, which allowed quarterback Chad Voytik to establish season highs in carries (19) and rushing yards (118).

“They kind of have a theme of the week,” Gilmore said. “They’ve got some things that they’ll scheme up for each opponent, but for the most part, you see the same plays over and over, just out of different formations.”

That creates a chess match of sorts in trying to prepare for how Pitt may choose to attack.

“You think about it, but the thing you do is you look at the last four games, what they’ve done, and you try to come up with a consensus on the top things you need to try to stop,” Gilmore said. “Like always, you’ve got to make game adjustments and find out what they really want to do when they get out there on Saturday.”

Pitt has placed more of an emphasis on adding more players at the point of attack in recent weeks, according to Koenning.

UNC allowed 295 rushing yards in its last game at Miami, although those miscues were less about physical mismatches and more about gap integrity. Pitt will not only test the Tar Heels’ gap control, but also their ability to maintain the line of scrimmage against double teams.

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