After a narrow 23-20 win against Syracuse this past weekend, Pitt welcomes North Carolina to Heinz Field in a Thursday night matchup. Here's an early look at the Tar Heels.
Like the Panthers, North Carolina checks in at 6-1 on the season. Also like Pitt, they have yet to pick up a statement win - the Tar Heels' victories have come against North Carolina A&T, Delaware, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Wake Forest, and Virginia. Their sole loss was on opening day against South Carolina, 17-13.
North Carolina defeated Georgia Tech and Virginia a little easier than the Panthers did. The Tar Heels topped the Yellow Jackets by seven and the Cavaliers by 13.
Most Recent Game
North Carolina defeated Virginia at home, 26-13 this past weekend.
Marquise Williams leads the team at quarterback (more on him in a bit) and is unquestionably one of their most talented players. Sophomore running back Elijah Hood has been one of the best in the conference so far. He has racked up four 100-yard games and is finding the end zone lately. Five of his eight rushing touchdowns have come in the last three games. Hood is fifth in the conference in rushing and only 16 yards behind Pitt's Qadree Ollison for fourth place. Beyond the skill guys, there's guard Landon Turner, widely regarded as one of the best at his position in the country - he was a Phil Steel first-team All-American.
Defensively, there's Shakeel Rashad at linebacker. Rashad already has two interceptions and three forced fumbles, and was previously an ACC Linebacker of the Week.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out receiver/return man Ryan Switzer, who has burned the Panthers before. He has six career punt returns for touchdowns and the Panthers would do well to avoid giving him opportunities at all costs.
The aforementioned Williams remains under center for the Tar Heels. The senior quarterback has had his share of struggles this year already. Williams is fifth in passer rating in the ACC and the conference's second leading rusher for a quarterback with 476 yards. But he has also thrown seven interceptions to his nine touchdowns and could be ripe for a turnover or two on Thursday facing one of the better defenses he's probably seen to this point.
Still, Williams was incredibly difficult to contain last year. Against Pitt, he accounted for four total touchdowns, including three rushing scores and 122 yards on the ground. He also threw for 276 yards and avoided any interceptions during the Tar Heels' 40-35 win. Here's to hoping Pat Narduzzi's defense is able to rattle him a little more.
The Tar Heels are playing extremely well on both sides of the ball. North Carolina ranks 24th in the nation in total offense with nearly 475 yards per game and they are 16th in scoring defense allowing fewer than 17 points per contest. The pass defense, in particular, is what should concern Pitt fans. They rank second in the nation there, giving up less than 140 passing yards per game. North Carolina is also very good on third down, converting nearly 50% of their attempts. This is a very solid team from top to bottom.
While the Tar Heels have a lot going for them, there are a few weaknesses on the team. The biggest advantage for Pitt is probably in the ground game where the Tar Heels rank a dismal 111th, giving up 212.6 yards per contest. Based on the strong pass defense, you can probably expect to see a heavy dose of the running game early on to give the Pitt coaches an idea of what they can and can't do. And just as they are great at converting third downs, they have also had some trouble getting their defense off the field. Opposing offenses have converted more than 40% of their third down attempts and that ranks the Tar Heels only 82nd in the nation.
Time of possession is one of those tricky stats since it's not always a great indication of how good a team is. It basically penalizes teams that are often able to score quickly. But North Carolina ranks 125th there, which makes sense with their problems in stopping opposing running games.
Make no mistake, this should be a war. Both teams are jockeying for position in the Coastal Division race and both have played well to this point. It certainly favors Pitt to get the game at home and also on a Thursday night where a big crowd is expected. But the Panthers need to do a lot in this game to win, including containing quarterback Marquise Williams.