After in-state rival Penn State and a difficult road game against Oklahoma State, you’d like to think Pitt can have some time to catch its breath. No such luck this week as the Panthers have another challenging game next. This weekend’s contest against the Tar Heels is difficult for a few reasons.
First, it’s the third consecutive ‘tough’ game for the team. Teams/coaches won’t publicly downplay opponents very often and will tell you that every game is a big one. But to play three tough opponents all in a row just isn’t all that easy.
Then there’s the fact that it’s another road game. On paper, you might feel decent about this game but getting it at home would feel better.
Next, it’s the first ACC game of the year and while it would have been nice to defeat the Cowboys, the conference games are on a completely different level in terms of importance. Pitt’s ultimate goal is to win the ACC and they can’t reach the title game without winning the conference battles.
Finally, when you consider that this one is against North Carolina, a favorite for the Division no less, Pitt will need all kinds of help if they want to win the Division should they lose this one. You might be able to stay in the hunt for a Division title if you lose one of the lesser games. But, in general, you need to beat the better teams in the head-to-head matchups.
In other words, this is a very big game.
Like Pitt, the Tar Heels have been tested already. Their sole loss came to a Top 20 Georgia team, 33-24 and North Carolina also faced P5 team Illinois in a 48-23 blowout win on the road. This weekend was another easy win against James Madison, as the Tar Heels doubled them up, 56-28.
Playing North Carolina, Pitt will face another solid passing attack. Marquise Williams and his back-to-back 3,000-yard passing seasons is thankfully graduated, but the Tar Heels have still passed the ball capably with new quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is not only a junior, but one with some experience, attempting about 150 passes over the past couple of years. On the season, he already has 853 yards including a huge day against James Madison this weekend with 432 yards. Trubisky also has avoided costly mistakes with eight total touchdowns and zero interceptions.
And by the way, Trubisky can run it a bit as well. He already has a 39-yard run on the season and two rushing touchdowns.
Of course, the Tar Heels are incredibly strong in the backfield, too. There, they’ll have to contend with Elijah Hood, who piled up nearly 1,500 yards on the ground last season, good for third in the ACC. He’s not had a huge start to the year, but still has 266 yards and four touchdowns. Even if Pitt’s secondary plays better this week, the defense can’t afford to relax in the running game and will need to shut down Hood.
In the ‘That guy’s still there?’ category is Pitt killer Ryan Switzer, who’s always managed big games against the Panthers. As a freshman, he returned two punts for touchdowns. Two years ago, he had a big catch and long touchdown. Last year, he piled up 126 passing yards and a touchdown. That dude loves playing Pitt and it would be surprising if he didn’t have at least one big time play.
So, how can Pitt win?
Defensively, North Carolina has been pretty tough on passing games but a little vulnerable against opposing running backs. They gave up 222 yards to Georgia star Nick Chubb. James Madison’s top two backs went for nearly 200 yards on the ground. And Illinois’ top back, Ke’Shawn Vaughn had 116 yards and a score against them. ESPN noted after their most recent game against James Madison that they’re a little banged up on the defensive line.
Seemingly, there’s an opening for Pitt’s stable of running backs so James Conner and company might be able to have a nice day.
Pitt’s defense also continues to force some turnovers and that’s encouraging. If they can win the takeaway battle, that would be a big help.
On the surface, this has the look of a difficult game to win. And Pitt’s secondary issues from this past weekend will make it even harder to feel optimistic here. But if the running game is strong and the Panthers can force a turnover or two, they can give themselves a chance to win it.