Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. Pitt

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – North Carolina returns to the Queen City for the second-consecutive season looking to pull the upset against No. 17 Pittsburgh on Saturday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (4:30pm/ESPN).

North Carolina (8-4, 4-4 ACC) enters Saturday's bowl game as a 2.5-point underdog to Pittsburgh (9-3, 5-2 Big East). The storylines surrounding UNC's second visit to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 364 days has been two-fold with the primary focus on the fans' disenchantment with yet another trip to Charlotte and a secondary look back at the history between head coaches Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt.

But while the media has enjoyed stirring the pot concerning the Tar Heels' destination in the ACC's sixth-place bowl slot, the Tar Heels have actually embraced the opportunity as a shot at redemption after losing last season's matchup to West Virginia, 31-30. The entire program – from the coaching staff on down – has made it clear that another opportunity to take the field is another opportunity to build upon Davis' first three years in Chapel Hill.

"In the infamous words of Herman Edwards, you play the game because you want to win," Davis said. "It's a nice reward to go to a bowl game and it signifies an awful lot of positive things about our program. But our kids are competitive. They want to play this game and they want to win."

A victory against the Panthers would give North Carolina its third win of the season over a top-20 ranked opponent – the last time that happened was way back in 1979. The Tar Heels are also seeking to extend their current school record by defeating a ranked opponent for a sixth-straight time.

But success against Pitt will prove to be difficult on Saturday. Tailback Dion Lewis has churned out 1,640 yards and 17 touchdowns in his freshman season, earning Sporting News National Freshman of the Year honors along the way.

"[Lewis] presents challenges for our defense," UNC free safety Deunta Williams said. "He's a good running back… He's advanced to be young at that position. He does a great job of using his shiftiness to elude tacklers. We've just got to wrap him up and the first guy that gets to him really has to make sure that he doesn't let go of him."

North Carolina counters with one of the nation's top defenses, ranking the top-15 in five categories – total defense (6th – 267.8 ypg), run defense (9th – 92.8 ypg), pass efficiency defense (13th – 103.85), scoring defense (13th – 16.9 ppg) and pass defense (15th – 174.9 ypg).

"It will be the best defense statistically and talent-wise we've faced all year," Wannstedt said. Pitt quarterback Bull Stull (192-of-297 passing, 2,470 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT) and Lewis have both benefited from an offensive line that has not missed a start to injury and ranks 16th-nationally in sacks allowed (1.08).

The result has been glaring in one critical area – turnovers. Only six teams in the country have committed fewer turnovers than the Panthers (13). That could be the most important aspect of Saturday's bowl game, considering that North Carolina has posted a plus-11 turnover margin in its eight victories and a minus-8 in its four losses.

The Panthers' knack for holding onto the ball has played a role in their 90.6 percent conversion rate in the red zone (48-of-53).

"It goes along with their style of offense," Davis said. "They've certainly featured some really talented running backs. They run the ball and those guys really protect the football… [The Panthers] don't put themselves in perilous situations. You don't see them in a lot of 3rd-and-long where a defense has a chance to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback that could result in [interceptions] or sack-fumbles."

Which brings us to the long history between Davis and Wannstedt. They spent 11 years working side-by-side on Jimmy Johnson's coaching staff at Oklahoma State, Miami and Dallas, so it's only natural for there to be strong similarities between these two programs. The primary difference resides in the fact that Wannstedt has profited from two more seasons at the helm in Pittsburgh, as well as being able to avoid the injury bug that decimated Davis' offense throughout the 2009 schedule.

The Tar Heels have been forced to play a handful of freshmen along its offensive line, in addition to losing three running backs to season-ending injuries and lacking the talents of tight end Zack Pianalto for a series of games. But maligned junior quarterback T.J. Yates (1,953 yards, 12 TD, 14 INT) brushed off a question on Tuesday about any possible jealousy felt towards a Pitt offense that has remained healthy all season long.

"I think it's made us better because we've been able to handle this adversity that has been thrown at us from all different directions," Yates said. "This offense has faced more adversity than I can ever remember. That's awesome that they've been able to stay healthy throughout the whole season, but I'm not really envious because I think we're better for it."

Yates will be pressured all day long by a Pittsburgh pass rush that leads the nation with an average of 3.67 sacks per game. UNC tailback Ryan Houston's (630 yards, 9 TD) ability to keep the chains moving will be instrumental in allowing North Carolina's play-action pass to keep the Panthers honest on defense.

A win on Saturday would give North Carolina nine wins for just the 15th time in school history. The last time the Tar Heels delivered a nine-win season was 1997 when they finished 11-1.

Inside Carolina Top Stories