The 17th-ranked Panthers will make their 26th all-time bowl appearance against North Carolina on Saturday. Fifth-year head coach Dave Wannstedt (34-26 overall) directed his program to a 9-3 (6-2) regular season record and a second-place finish in the Big East. Pitt's three losses occurred by a combined 11 points, losing at NC State, 38-31, at West Virginia, 19-16, on a field goal as time expired, and in the season finale against Cincinnati, 45-44, on a last-minute touchdown.
The Panthers fielded solid units on both sides of the ball, rolling up 399.9 yards and 33.2 points per game while only allowing 323.9 yards and 20.0 points per outing. That balanced success was evident during the postseason award disbursement season as 14 players earned varying levels of national and conference recognition – seven offensive, six defensive and one specialist.
A victory over North Carolina would give Pitt 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1981, when the Panthers — led by All-America quarterback Dan Marino — finished 11-1 and No. 2 in the country.
"They are a very good football team. A nine-win team, like ourselves who is smarting from the last game of the season and would certainly like to end the season on a positive note." – UNC head coach Butch Davis on Pitt
Quarterback Bill Stull's junior season didn't end anywhere close to where he had hoped or expected – completing just 7-of-24 passes for 52 yards in a miserable 3-0 loss Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State. That performance paved the way for the Pittsburgh native to receive heavy criticism from fans and media alike entering the 2009 season, despite a solid '08 campaign in which he completed 57 percent of his passes (188-of-330) for 2,356 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The criticism reached a fever pitch when Stull was booed during the season opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 5.
But new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. and a standout running back by the name of Dion Lewis helped Stull keep his head up amidst the turmoil and emerge victorious in his final season directing his hometown team.
"Every week, Coach Cignetti and the coaches make practice as difficult as possible for us quarterbacks. Stull said recently. "I think come Saturday, it becomes muscle memory. We develop repetition of certain plays and certain looks."
That approach has allowed the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder to dramatically improve upon his numbers this season, earning first-team All-Big East honors after completing 64.6 percent of his passes (192-of-297) for 2,470 yards and 21 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
Stull ranks 11th nationally in passing efficiency and second in the Big East with a 152.45 rating, and boasts seven fourth-quarter comebacks on his resume. The senior has also benefitted from an offensive line that ranks 16th nationally and second in the Big East in sacks allowed (1.08 spg).
Matchups to Watch
Pitt's Dion Lewis vs. UNC's Run Defense
Heisman hype doesn't come easy, but loading up a U-Haul truck full of postseason accolades as a freshman is sure to get you into the conversation. The Albany, N.Y. native picked up Sporting News National Freshman of the Year honors last week after churning out 1,640 yards and 17 touchdowns in the first 12 games of his college career, good for third nationally.
"He is very fast," said UNC's Davis, who compares Lewis to former Miami Hurricane running back Clinton Portis. "He's got excellent vision. The thing you see with a really talented running back is that if you block a play for a 6-7-8 yard gain, some guys can turn that into 12 or 15, and some guys can turn it into 50. He's one of those guys – he's very dangerous."
The Panthers rank 29th nationally in rushing offense (184.6 yards per game), enjoying the luxury of an offensive line that has started the same five players in all 12 games.
North Carolina counters with the nation's No. 9 run defense, allowing 92.8 yards per outing. Those statistics appear even stouter when considering the outlier of Georgia Tech's 317 rushing yards on Sept. 26. Virginia (106) and Miami (116) are the only other UNC opponents to cross the century-mark this season. The Tar Heels closed out the season by holding N.C. State to 1.9 yards per carry in totaling 76 rushing yards on 41 carries.
Davis's goal of playing 8-10 defensive linemen per game has allowed UNC to remain fresh during the late stages of games this season, and that's also one of the reasons North Carolina ranks third nationally in tackles for loss (8.4).
If the Tar Heels can force Pittsburgh to rely on Stull's arm, they can possibly fluster the senior just as West Virginia did in its 19-16 upset win on Nov. 27, holding the Pittsburgh native to 179 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 16-of-30 passing.
UNC's T.J. Yates vs. Pitt's Pass Defense
North Carolina's red-shirt junior quarterback has served as the poster child of the fan base's frustration with the offense this season, thanks to inconsistent performances and a stat line with more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) to go along with 1,953 yards. But while Yates acknowledges his struggles in '09, he refuses to place any portion of the blame where it so obviously belongs – on the shoulders of an offensive line and wide receiving corps that have suffered through the pains of youth, inexperience and a rash of injuries.
"You can see that as these fans and these critics have high expectations for us," Yates said. "When I'm getting as criticized as much as I am and we're still on the road to winning nine games… Everybody's expecting more and everybody's wanting more, so I guess everyone feels that if my play had been a little bit better, we would have won some more ball games."
The Panthers's 18th-ranked run defense (108.4 ypg) will aim to stop tail back Ryan Houston's efforts on Saturday, leaving the onus on Yates to make the necessary plays to move the Tar Heels down the field without committing any costly mistakes.
But Pittsburgh's pass rush has been effective all season, leading the national with an average of 3.67 sacks per game. The Panthers have totaled 44 sacks in '09, led by defensive end Greg Romeus (8) with middle linebacker Adam Gunn and defensive tackle Myles Caragein close behind with five apiece.
"Clearly, Pitt's defense is really good," Davis said. "They are big and physical, lead the nation in sacks and can put pressure on the quarterback. Subsequently, the completion percentage of the quarterbacks is not very good. They limit your ability to make big plays because you do not have the ball very long."