Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

Countdown to Kickoff: UNC-Pittsburgh

The Tar Heels look to win back-to-back ACC openers for the first time since 1996-97.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Powerful offenses and porous defenses converge at Kenan Stadium on Saturday as North Carolina and Pittsburgh open ACC play in a critical Coastal Division matchup (3:30pm/ESPNU).

The Tar Heels (2-1) are seven-point favorites in a series they have dominated, 3-0, since the Panthers (2-1) joined the ACC in 2013. UNC’s 26-19 win over Pitt at Heinz Field last October was the difference in determining the Coastal Division champion as the Tar Heels finished 8-0 in league play and the Panthers came in second at 6-2. A year later, UNC is the favorite to repeat and Pitt was picked third in the preseason media poll.

After failing to connect on his seven passes of 20+ yards in the season-opening loss to Georgia, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky has improved in the two weeks since and completed 24-of-27 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday’s win over James Madison. The Tar Heels rank 17th nationally in passing efficiency (166), 20th in scoring offense (42.7 ppg) and 24th nationally in passing offense (294.3 ypg), which matches well with Pitt’s quarters defense that has been exposed thus far in 2016, allowing 330.3 yards per game through the air (124th nationally).

Oklahoma State threw for 540 yards in last weekend’s 45-38 win over the Panthers, although Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was most frustrated by the fact that his defense, which is designed to stop the run, allowed a 67-yard touchdown scamper by Rennie Childs.

“I don't care about stats,” Narduzzi said. “I've won a lot of games where we've had someone throw for over 500 yards. We beat Baylor a couple years ago when they rushed for minus-18 yards and threw for over 500, and we beat them. The disappointing thing was that we let [Oklahoma State] throw the ball, and we also let them run the ball.”

Narduzzi’s press quarters scheme is built to contain the run and limit perimeter screens. Its weakness is the deep ball, which explains OSU’s 11.7 yards per attempt.

“It presented a mismatch problem for us, and so will North Carolina for that matter,” Narduzzi said.

The Cowboys’ 11.7 yards per attempt matches UNC’s average against the Panthers last season, a game in which wide receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins combined for 29.6 yards per catch on seven receptions to go along with a pair of touchdowns.

“I think this offense is really built as a strength to go against quarters defense,” Trubisky said. “With the playmakers we have on the outside, we can try to get behind that.”

Pittsburgh will take a different offensive approach. Running back James Conner’s return from a knee injury and a bout with Hodgkin lymphoma has been college football’s inspirational story of the year, and his productivity on the field hasn’t suffered due to the adversity. The junior ranks fifth in the ACC in rushing yards per game (93.7) running behind a veteran offensive line.

“There's nothing that's different from when he was the Player of the Year two years ago,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “The guy has picked up right where he left off, running very, very physical. He's very difficult to bring down. He's just a heck of a player.”

Pitt ranks 20th nationally in rushing yards per game (239), while UNC is allowing 226.7 rushing yards per game (106th). The Tar Heels’ run defense has been especially vulnerable in the first half through three games, allowing 5.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns.

Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik criticized his unit for being soft in last weekend’s win over FCS opponent James Madison after the Dukes scored 28 points and rolled up 495 total yards of offense.

“We’ve got to improve a lot this week or this game could get ugly,” Chizik said.

The Tar Heels will return starting defensive tackle Naz Jones (concussion), who has been the anchor up front. Two-year starting defensive end Dajaun Drennon also returned to practice this week after being sidelined for six months with a broken right foot. He is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game.

With both teams seemingly scoring at will - Pitt is averaging 36 points per game - whichever defense makes the most effective adjustments will hold the upper hand in a contest that will shape the Coastal Division race. 

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