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Pitt’s next test is a Thursday night matchup with North Carolina

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After a bye week, the Pitt football team is back at it this week with a rare Thursday night game. That frees up our Saturdays and also means the team will be under the spotlight of the nation on ESPN.

It’s difficult to know how to feel about this game. North Carolina, as we’ve seen at times, could be vulnerable. This is the same team that lost to Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Wake. But they also nearly beat Clemson and haven’t lost a game by more than seven points all year. Almost all of their games, in fact, have been close. Three of their wins were decided by no more than six points and only one, a 16-point victory against Georgia Tech, was relatively comfortable. For as much as we’ve talked about Pitt playing in mostly tight contests, North Carolina is basically in the same boat.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. That’s because Pitt’s history with North Carolina is, well, not good.

Putting it mildly, Pitt has been a train wreck in games against North Carolina. The actual skill level of either team has not necessarily decided the result and even when the Tar Heels have been bad, the Panthers have not been able to capitalize. Since joining the ACC in 2013, Pitt is an awful 0-6 against North Carolina.

That isn’t to suggest the games have not been competitive. Pitt has come close to winning a game. Several, actually. No game has been decided by more than a touchdown and the last three have been tantalizingly close with the Panthers dropping those by a combined seven points. Still, close doesn’t cut it and Pitt lost those games just as they would have if the result was a 30-point loss.

Now, do I buy into the whole mystique of, ‘Maybe Pitt just can’t beat them?’ Of course not. All of the games have been relatively close and Pitt will eventually get one. The question is if that’s this year.

There’s evidence to suggest they can. Pitt has the game at home and North Carolina is 1-2 on the road, dropping contests to both Virginia Tech and Wake Forest (while beating only Georgia Tech). North Carolina also hasn’t been nearly effective on defense as Pitt has, ranking 70th in the nation, giving up nearly 400 yards per game.

The flipside to that is that the Tar Heels’ offense has been much more capable than Pitt’s has. Their 445.9 yards per game of total offense ranks them 37th in that category. An interesting footnote, however, is that the Tar Heels haven’t always been able to convert that yardage into points. While ranking 37th in yardage, North Carolina is a less impressive 76th in scoring offense with just under 28 points per game. That’s far better than Pitt’s nearly 21 points per contest but is probably a bit on the low end for how many yards they are piling up. Turnovers don’t seem to be the problem — the Tar Heels have had only nine of those all year, ranking 13th in the nation.

A key matchup figures to be Pitt’s defensive line against North Carolina’s offensive line. I suppose you can say that in any game but it’s particularly applicable here. Quarterback Sam Howell has been pretty good this year with nearly 2,500 yards, 26 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. But he’s also been sacked a whopping 28 times losing 171 yards in the process. The 29 total sacks (another quarterback took one) is among the worst in the nation. Defensive line pressure, should the defense get it, will go a long way to keeping the Tar Heels’ offense in check.

This game has the ultimate look of a toss up on it and I can think you can make good cases why either team can win. You can really see it going either way and while I suspect the Pitt defense will do just fine, you just wonder, like we have all year, if the offense will score enough points.

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