Meineke Car Care Bowl Preview

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt and North Carolina's Butch Davis have a lengthy history together, but the two have never coached against each other.

That will change this week, as Pittsburgh (9-3) faces North Carolina (8-4) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl today at 4:30 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C.

"He probably got bored watching our tape after one day,'' Wannstedt said. "We come from the same (coaching) background. We worked together (with Jimmy Johnson) at Oklahoma State. We worked together at the University of Miami, and we worked together with the Dallas Cowboys.''

OK, so the two go way back. They're friends, and their wives are friends who have kept in touch over the years. But that's not where the similarities end. Both like their teams to play smash-mouth football on both sides of the line.

"They're running the four-three defense like we are,'' Wannstedt said. "They've got (tough) defensive linemen. It's built the same way, the same foundation. Offensively, they're trying to run the ball with play-action passes and waggles.

"There's no spread stuff. It's a pro offense and a pro defense. We'll each have new wrinkles, but ... the two teams are about as close a mirror image of each other as what anybody could see in the country.

"Butch places a priority on (athletic) defensive linemen,'' Wannstedt added, "and running the ball with being physical on offense and ... with an importance on kicking games. So, anyone who's come out of the Jimmy Johnson (coaching) tree, guys like us and Norv Turner, those things show up.''

North Carolina's defense ranks among the top 10 teams nationally, and it has to because the Tar Heels don't have the type of offense to compete if the score gets out of hand.

Sure, junior quarterback T.J. Yates has good size at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and he has completed better than 60 percent of his passes for nearly 2,000 yards. However, Yates has 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a 114.8 rating, so he doesn't make a lot of plays.

The best way North Carolina moves the football is on the ground, and bruising junior Ryan Houston (6-2, 250), a Charlotte native, carries the load with 630 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. Junior Shaun Draughn gets his share of carries as well and has 567 yards (4.6) and one score. The Tar Heels only have 14 rushing touchdowns total.

"(Houston), he's about 250 pounds, and he's very physical,'' Pitt sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said. "But we've faced backs like that all year, so we know what to expect. He'll be tough, so we'll have to gang-tackle him. The key is to avoid having to make one-on-one tackles against him.''

The North Carolina receiving corps is varied with 6-3, 215-pound junior Greg Little leading the way with 55 catches for 637 yards and three touchdowns. The next two guys, 6-3, 175-pound freshman Erik Highsmith and 6-4, 255-pound junior tight end Zack Pianalto have 34 (two scores) and 31 (one) catches, respectively, but around just 11 and 10 yards per catch.

The Tar Heels' big-play wideout is 6-2, 185-pound freshman Jheranie Boyd with just 11 catches, but a 19.1-yard average and four touchdowns. And 6-feet, 210-pound running back Draughn has 21 catches (6.0 average) and no scores.

"They have a couple big receivers, so that's going to be a challenge for our secondary,'' Pitt senior cornerback Aaron Berry said. "They like to run the ball a lot to set up the play-action pass, so we'll have to be ready for that.''

Another weapon for North Carolina is place-kicker Casey Bart with 20 field goals and 92 points. Also, punt-returner Da'Norris Searcy has a 77-yard run-back for a touchdowns.

Defensively, Wannstedt noted that the Tar Heels are ranked sixth in the nation this season, and they make a lot of big plays with a front four that could be playing on Sundays in the near future.

North Carolina has returned four of its 19 interceptions for touchdowns this season, as Deunta Williams and Kendric Burney lead the way with six and five picks, respectively. Burney has two scores. Charles Brown has three interceptions, while Bruce Carter returned his pick 41 yards for a score, and Melvin Williams ran back his pick 62 yards to the end zone.

"After going to the bowl game last year and the entire bowl-game experience, we're ready for anything,'' Wannstedt said. "I think it's now a been there, done that thing for most of these guys.

"So, I'm optimistic that we'll be able to be a little more efficient from a football standpoint. I know that I will, because last year was my first year going through it, the same as the players.''

And in his first game coaching against buddy Butch Davis, Wannstedt is hopeful for a late Christmas present that everyone associated with Pitt can enjoy.

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