Countdown to Kickoff: Pittsburgh

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina must win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible. First up is a home matchup with Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh on Saturday (12:30pm/ACCN).

UNC is favored by two points in the second meeting between these programs as ACC rivals. The Tar Heels outlasted the Panthers, 34-27, in last season’s contest in Pittsburgh.

UNC and Pitt share identical records – 4-5 (2-3 ACC) – and Saturday’s loser will be eliminated from the Coastal Division race. While a postseason appearance remains possible even with a loss this weekend, both teams have a difficult road game left on the schedule. UNC plays at No. 21 Duke on Thursday night and Pitt closes the season at Miami on Nov. 29.

The Tar Heels have lost five of their last seven games, while the Panthers have dropped five of their last six.

UNC opened the season ranked in the top-25, and despite the struggles to date, head coach Larry Fedora has managed to keep his young roster engaged and playing hard.

“It’s hard to stay positive when you’ve got five losses,” sophomore WR/PR Ryan Switzer said. “But that’s where the senior leaders on this team come into play, and that’s when they earn their title of leader, when you’re struggling and things aren’t going well. They’ve done a good job of doing that.”

Both teams are coming off bye weeks, and both coaching staffs spent the off week stressing fundamentals. Paul Chryst is 3-2 off bye weeks in his three seasons as Pitt’s head coach, while Fedora is looking for his first win in five tries after a bye week at UNC.

The challenge for both teams this Saturday is in finding a way to stop the other’s offensive approach. Fedora’s approach is built tempo and spacing, while Chryst is content with trying overpower his opponent at the point of attack.

UNC ranks 27th nationally in scoring offense (35.4 ppg) and 55th in total offense (422.7 ypg), thanks in large part to junior quarterback Marquise Williams (2,221 passing yards, 17 TD, 8 INT; 506 rushing yards, 7 TD). The Charlotte, N.C. native is second in the ACC behind Florida State’s Jameis Winston in total offense (303.0 ypg) and is one of just five players in the country leading his team in both passing yards and rushing yards.

“On a pass, he’s going to try to get the ball downfield and throw it,” Chryst said of Williams. “It’s not just if the first look [is covered] that he’s pulling it down and going. I think he’s got good sense and a good feel for the game. That’s what makes him dangerous.”

Pitt’s defense has been susceptible to the big play, allowing 15 passes of 25 yards or more and 11 runs of 20 yards or more. That bodes well for a UNC offense that has struggled to sustain drives but yet has capitalized with quick-strike scores.

“They're going to make plays,” Chryst said. “They're a talented offense. The big thing we've got to do is minimize the number of big plays and we’ve got to play off each other offensively and in special teams and find a way to win.”

UNC’s defense, on the other hand, is tasked with slowing down sophomore running back James Conner (1,342 yards, 17 TD). The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder runs behind a monster offensive line with a 270-pound fullback leading the way. Conner rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries as freshman against UNC last season.

The Tar Heels rank 110th nationally in run defense in giving up 219.7 yards per game.

“We haven't done a very good job against the run,” Fedora said this week. “At times during the season, there have been times that we've been very good, and then we'll miss a gap or miss a tackle and give up a big play.

“So the thing that we've got to do is just be consistent throughout the game and understand that they're going to pick up some yardage in the running game. That's what they do. Those guys are very good at it.”

A win on Saturday would improve UNC’s record in November under Fedora to 7-3.

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