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Pitt looks to keep momentum against North Carolina

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a win against Georgia Tech this weekend, the Panthers will look to keep some momentum going against North Carolina on Saturday.

Pitt fans know the Tar Heels have had the program’s number. Since the Panthers got into the ACC, they’ve not yet been able to defeat North Carolina. The games have mostly been pretty competitive (particularly in the last two years when Pitt has lost by a combined four points) but Pitt is 0-5 against the Tar Heels since joining the conference.

Last year’s game was especially frustrating. North Carolina was, in a word, bad. They were only 3-9 on the season and their only other two wins came against Old Dominion and Western Carolina. Despite that, Pitt still couldn’t beat the Tar Heels, begging the question, if not then, when?

This could be the year the streak is broken, I suppose. But I think most of us expected that last year, too. And, after all, while North Carolina was not very good last year, neither was Pitt at 5-7.

The Tar Heels are 0-2 coming into the game and had their contest this past weekend against Central Florida canceled because of the weather. Those two losses have come to Cal and, surprisingly, East Carolina. The loss to ECU was particularly interesting as they were blown out in that one (41-19) and ECU had lost to FCS team North Carolina A&T in the previous week. Of note is that it will be North Carolina’s home opener while it is the first road contest for Pitt.

North Carolina will be playing a bit shorthanded. Several guys have returned from suspensions stemming from selling Nike gear in the offseason. But seven more are still out for at one more game (the Pitt game), including quarterback Chazz Surratt, who started a good chunk of the games last season for them. That’s big as the Tar Heels have had terrible quarterback play this year. North Carolina’s starter, junior Nathan Elliott, has thrown for only 356 yards with four interceptions to only one touchdown in the first two games. That should favor Pitt and help the questionable secondary a bit. This is another good measuring stick for that unit. If North Carolina comes in and has a successful day passing the ball, that’s a pretty big alarm.

You can bet that while it’s still early in the year, North Carolina will be playing desperate. That’s partly driven by the 0-2 start but also because their next two games are against ranked Miami and Virginia Tech teams. A loss to Pitt could very well mean North Carolina needs to practically run the table after those contests just to get to a bowl game.

I know coaches talk about teams not looking ahead and such but you’ve got to think that the team’s got this one circled as a must win to salvage the season. Sure, they could upset one of those ranked teams but Pitt likely represents their best chance for a win of the three.

This is going to be another good barometer for Pitt. It’s the first road game and against a winnable team. And with four games left against ranked opponents, Pitt really can’t afford to drop this one, either. Games like this one are really must wins as far as I’m concerned. Not must win in terms of reaching a bowl game, necessarily. Pitt will still have plenty of chances to do that. But if they want to compete for a Division title and have anything better than, I don’t know, a 6-6 year, you really don’t want to drop this one.

I’ll have a look at the official lines later in the week but I will admit to being a little surprised by ESPN’s predictor for the contest. They’ve got North Carolina with a 66% chance to win. Given the history between the two teams, I suppose I can see picking the Tar Heels. But North Carolina also has not looked real good so far and them as the overwhelming favorite seems a little odd.

Those game predictors, of course, can be remarkably off. The one for the North Carolina-ECU game, for example, had North Carolina with nearly a 100% chance to win. So, take it for what you will.

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