Series Record: North Carolina leads, 7-3
Last Five Games: North Carolina leads, 4-1
Getting to Know the Panthers
Pittsburgh enters its first ACC game of the season with a 2-1 record. After starting the season with two consecutive wins, including a rivalry victory over Penn State, the Panthers fell to Oklahoma State, 45-38, last weekend in Stillwater. Second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi leads his team into ACC play hoping to improve on last season’s impressive 6-2 campaign in the Coastal Division. With a deep backfield on offense and formidable front seven on defense, Pitt may be UNC’s toughest opponent to date this season.
There is no way to talk about Pittsburgh’s offense without first mentioning junior running back James Conner, and there’s no way to talk about Conner without looking back at the past year of his life. Conner, who was the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, suffered a season-ending MCL injury in the Panther’s season opener against Youngstown State last year. If the injury wasn’t bad enough, Conner then announced in December that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Fortunately for the 21-year-old, he was declared cancer free on May 23, and was able to return to college football.
Conner made his triumphant on-field return against Villanova and has looked like his former self thus far. Under Pitt’s new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Conner has successfully carried the load, rushing for an average of 93.7 yards per game and scoring three total touchdowns. The junior is coming off his most impressive performance of the season in the Oklahoma State loss, a game in which he rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown while also accumulating 60 receiving yards on two catches. Conner is complimented by sophomore running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, offering Canada a pair of options when Conner needs a breather.
The most explosive player on offense for the Panthers is sophomore Quadree Henderson. Henderson is a wide receiver, but his contributions to Pittsburgh’s offense go far beyond just catching the ball. He’s a talented rusher, and has been the reason behind the Panther’s success running the jet sweep. In the first three games of the season, Henderson has rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on a total of only 11 carries. The wide receiver also isn’t too shabby at his listed position, either. He has nine catches for 113 yards and one touchdown in 2016. If all that wasn’t enough, the all-purpose player is also the most skilled return man on Pittsburgh’s roster. He already has a kickoff return touchdown this year – a 96-yard scamper in their season opener against Villanova. His speed will test UNC in multiple positions on the field.
The Panthers’ passing game is led by senior quarterback Nathan Peterman. The former Tennessee transfer is an effective game manager, averaging 167.7 passing yards per game with six passing touchdowns. With wide receiver Dontez Ford sidelined with a broken collarbone, Peterson has relied on Henderson and senior tight end Scott Orndoff as his top receiving threats. At 6-foot-5, Orndoff is a big and reliable target in the short and intermediate passing game. Junior receiver Jester Weah, who is 6-foot-3, represents a deep threat in averaging 20.5 yards a catch with two touchdowns this season.
Narduzzi is notorious for his defensive philosophy to stack the box and take away short passing options with a pressing style of quarters coverage. While his schemes worked well in his time as defensive coordinator at Michigan State and in his first season at Pitt, his pass defense has been a liability thus far in 2016. Pittsburgh is giving up an average of 30.3 points per game this season, including 38.5 over the last two games. The secondary allowing 330.3 passing yards per game.
In contrast to the secondary, Pitt’s run defense has had a stellar first three games, only allowing an average of 75.7 yards per game, which works in conjuncture with the porous pass defense. That unit is highlighted by senior defensive lineman Ejuan Price, who has 7.5 tackles for losses already this season, including 4.5 sacks. Price is assisted on the defensive line by fellow senior Shakir Soto. Soto has one sack this season and at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, he is a force to be reckoned with in the running game.
Overall, Pitt’s front seven has done a phenomenal job of getting to the quarterback. The Panther’s are tied for 5th in the nation with 13 total sacks. The pressure that the Panther’s will put on UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be the most that he’s seen all season. It’s worth noting that even with Pitt’s problems in the secondary, defensive back Avonte Maddox has still stood out as a playmaker within the unit. While the junior has looked inconsistent in coverage, he’s found success when Narduzzi decides to blitz him from the corner, tallying two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in those situations.
“We just have to keep coaching them; that’s our job. They have to believe in what we do. They must understand it works when you do it right, and it doesn’t work if you don’t do it right. It’s either your way or our way, which one are you going to do? If you continue to do it your way, then we’re going to have problems. If you flip on the tape and watch when we’re successful, it is when we cover the guys with good technique. When you don’t win the play, they need to see what they did wrong. It needs to become evident. It happens, and it’s why we coach. If it were easy, everybody in here would coach. But it’s not. That’s the challenge of coaching: it’s fun.” – Narduzzi on his defense’s struggles
“They’re the first team we’ve had three films on. They are really good in all areas, I don’t care where you’re looking at. They run the ball very effectively against everybody they’ve played. Defensively they’re really stingy. Pat does a great job with the defense and they do a great job against the running game… They’re a really good football team, a really solid football team. We probably know more about this team than any other team that we’ve played.” – UNC coach Larry Fedora
Matchup to Watch
UNC QB Mitch Trubisky’s Deep Pass vs. Pitt’s Secondary
After throwing for 432 yards in UNC’s 56-28 win over James Madison last week, there’s no question that UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky has his confidence back. After struggling with the deep pass in UNC’s first two games of the season, Trubisky found his groove against the Dukes, as evidenced by a pair of 70+ yard touchdown passes. Entering Saturday’s ACC opener, UNC’s quarterback has to have his eyes on a repeat performance. The Panthers secondary got exposed several times last week by Oklahoma State, with the biggest example being a 91-yard touchdown pass by the Cowboys on the first play of the game. If that play wasn’t bad enough, the Cowboys eventually won the game on an 87-yard fly route pass that set OSU up at the one-yard line to score the game-winning touchdown with under two minutes left. Expect Trubisky to seek out the long pass to Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer early on to test Pitt’s quarters defense.