No. 12 may decide first in ACC Coastal

No. 23 Pitt faces North Carolina for the first time under Pat Narduzzi Thursday. How the Panthers handle the opposing quarterback (or how he handles them) could decide who's atop the ACC come Friday morning.

Pat Narduzzi doesn't like talking about the past few years at Pitt. Not because of the program's mediocrity in those seasons, just because he wasn't there. 

But recent history is hard to ignore, especially against the Panthers' opponent Thursday night. Pitt's played North Carolina twice in the last two years once the Panthers joined the ACC's Coastal Division and lost each time. 

Narduzzi said his staff even burned the tape from last year's 40-35 loss because the players "know what it was." Still, Narduzzi and his staff know who was at the center of those losses. 

Marquise Williams threw for 276 yards and touchdown last season while running 19 times for 122 yards and three scores in Chapel Hill. At Heinz Field in 2013, he passed for 173 yards and scored twice on the ground in North Carolina's 34-27 victory. 

All told, of the 74 points the Tar Heels scored between those games, Williams was responsible for nearly half. 

“I haven’t looked at the past couple of years with what he’s done against Pitt because it doesn’t matter," Narduzzi said. "But Marquise is a great player, a big athlete, makes great decisions." 

Now as a senior, Williams is completing passes at a career-high rate and averaging seven yards each time he tucks and runs. He leads an offense tied with Clemson for the league scoring lead, putting up 38.4 points per game. 

When Pitt (6-1, 4-0 ACC) and North Carolina (6-1, 3-0) meet Thursday, Williams will have a lot to do with who wakes up in first place Friday.

"He doesn’t make mistakes," Narduzzi said. "He’s not a guy who’s easy to get down on the ground. He operates with no-huddle tempo offense, that’s why they’re number one in the ACC in scoring offense because he does a good job. That’s a guy who controls."

Williams has completed 66.9 percent of his passes this year for 1,353 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also carried 68 times for 476 yards and five touchdowns. 

The Tar Heels have other weapons in receiver Quinshad Davis, who leads the team with 30 receptions for 328 yards and a touchdown. Elijah Hood has emerged as a legitimate runner alongside Williams, carrying 100 times this season for 654 yards and eight touchdowns.

Ryan Switzer, who Pitt should remember from the two punts he returned for touchdowns in 2013. The shifty 5-foot-10 junior operates primarily out of the slot and is North Carolina's second-leading pass-catcher with 25 receptions for 302 yards this season. 

Matt Galambos, who leads the team with four sacks and eight tackles for loss, knows what to expect from the Tar Heels' no-huddle attack in his third go-around against them. 

"They can score a lot," Galambos said. "I guess the biggest difference versus other teams is just the tempo.They’re a lot more uptempo and we’ve been practicing (for) that."

But the crux of the ACC's best offense is undeniably Williams and even though Pitt's defense is much-improved, he'll test it more than most so far. Especially after questionable performances in the last two weeks. 

Narduzzi called the Panthers' tackling efforts embarrassing last week against Syracuse, following a week when they struggled to bring down Justin Thomas even though Georgia Tech's quarterbacks don't play like traditional quarterbacks. After posting a league-best 21 sacks through their first five games, the Panthers have one in their last two. 

Reaching Williams is only half the battle. Bringing the 6-foot-2, 225-pound quarterback down is an entirely separate task. 

But behind their new leader Narduzzi, the Panthers don't figure to back down from the challenge. 

"As a defense we’re not going to be afraid of anyone," Galambos said. "We’re going to be aware, but you don’t want to be on your heels just because they have a certain guy."

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