CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The ACC Coastal Division will take its first step toward clarity at Heinz Field on Thursday night when divisional co-leaders North Carolina and Pittsburgh engage for a primetime contest.
Pitt is 6-1 (4-0 ACC) and ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll. UNC is 6-1 (3-0 ACC) and a three-point road favorite. Both teams are tied atop of the Coastal standings along with Duke (6-1, 3-0 ACC) while the other four divisional teams all possess a losing record in conference play.
Despite the similar records, UNC and Pitt have arrived at this pivotal moment of their seasons by different methods. The Tar Heels have won six games in a row by an average margin of victory of 26 points. The Panthers, on the other hand, are 5-1 in games decided by one possession.
“Our kids have been great at winning the game in the fourth quarter, playing 60 minutes, not 55 or 45, but playing 60 minutes,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.
UNC’s explosive offense ranks in the top-25 nationally in five key statistical categories, including scoring offense (38.4 ppg; T-16th) and third-down conversion percentage (48.0; 13th).
Quarterback Marquise Williams has completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 1,353 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, while running back Elijah Hood (646 yards, 8 TD) is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Seven different Tar Heel wide receivers are averaging more than 10 yards per catch. One of those receivers, senior Quinshad Davis (30 catches, 328 yards, TD), needs two receptions to break UNC’s career receiving record.
The Tar Heels will be tested in chilly conditions by a Pitt defense designed to take away the run and the short passing game, staples of Larry Fedora’s offense. The Panthers rank 16th nationally in total defense (308.3) and 33rd in scoring defense (21.6).
“We’re going to need to be ready to play and be able to make competitive plays,” UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell said. “We’ve got to have better focus in this game to have success… This is the best defense we’ve played so far.”
As good as the Panthers’ defense has been in Narduzzi’s first season in Pittsburgh, UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s unit has arguably been just as good, if not better. UNC ranks 16th in scoring defense (16.7) and 36th in total defense (349.9) despite allowing 212.6 rushing yards per game (111th).
The Tar Heels have already lost one defensive lineman for the season due to injury – freshman Aaron Crawford – and tackles Nazair Jones and Tyler Powell were joined on the injury report this week by defensive end Dajaun Drennon.
“We’ve been beat up,” Chizik said. “We’re still beat up, but guys have stepped up and we’ve had guys stand in the gaps.”
Pitt will attempt to exploit those injuries up front with a rushing attack churning out 174.4 yards in ACC play. Qadree Ollison (662 yards, 7 TD) and a finally healthy Chris James (185 yards) anchor the ground game, while 2014 first-team All-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd (53 catches, 489 yards, 4 TD) has morphed into a versatile role for quarterback Nate Peterman (68.4 completion percentage, 1,111 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT).
“With a great player like [Boyd], I think the main thing is the awareness, knowing where he’s at all of the time,” Chizik said. “The last couple of weeks they’ve increasingly intentionally gotten him the ball and game planned a lot of different formations; playing him at running back, even. They’re trying to get him the ball, which is smart.”
A victory on Thursday would give either team an opportunity to all but secure a Coastal Division crown with a win against Duke in the coming weeks.
The Tar Heels are 7-7 all-time on Thursday night, including a 6-4 record on the road.
“Thursday night has become a college football night,” Fedora said. “Everybody's watching. There will be a lot of people tuned in to see what the Tar Heels do.”