Paul Chryst's second season in the Keystone State started with a 41-13 home loss in their ACC opener against a formidable Florida State team. From there, the Panthers won three straight contests against New Mexico and Coastal Division opponents Duke and Virginia. Three straight road losses against Virginia Tech, Navy and Georgia Tech halted the Panthers early ACC success. Notre Dame traveled to Heinz Field last Saturday and lost a close 28-21 contest to Chryst's team, which catapulted the Panthers into bowl talk relevancy.
Offensively, Pittsburgh ranks 105th nationally in total offense (346.9 ypg) and 80th in scoring offense (26.3 ppg). Quarterback Tom Savage's journeyman career resurrected under Chryst's tutelage. Savage leads the 69th ranked Panthers passing offense (225.6 ppg) along with the 42nd ranked aerial attack in team passing efficiency (142.7 ypg). The ground game ranks 106th in the country (121. 3 ypg) and is led by running back Isaac Bennett. Another name to note in the rushing attack is James Connor, who scored two touchdowns against the Irish after returning from an injury that sidelined him for four games.
Defensively, the Panthers rank 42nd in total defense (376 ypg) and 63rd in scoring defense (26.1 ppg). The Panthers thrive with their passing defense ranking 34th in the nation (214.9 ypg) and boast the 63rd ranked rushing defense (161.1 ypg). The trifecta of defenders featuring Ray Vinopal (three interceptions), Todd Thomas (56 tackles) and standout tackle Aaron Donald (9.0 sacks) make up the stout Pittsburgh defense.
"They have a big offensive line. Their tight end is a heck of a player. They have a number of skilled receivers. No matter who is playing the quarterback position, they're dangerous. We have to have a good plan. Certainly their quarterback is part of it, but it's also their scheme and what they're doing and who they do it with that you also have to plan accordingly for."- Chryst
"They're well coached. They're not making mistakes. They're where they're supposed to be. That stands out very much. You've got 97, the Donald kid who is a phenomenal player. He makes so much happen over there on defense. He creates a lot of problems. Another thing I think that stands out is they've got a freshman receiver that's really good. The Boyd kid and he's 59 or 60 catches or something like that at this point which is just behind (Larry) Fitzgerald as a freshman. You know how good Larry Fitzgerald is."-UNC football head coach Larry Fedora
Player to Watch
Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald has tallied up three multiple sack games on the season and provides a powerful interior force for the Pittsburgh defensive line. Donald is an All-American caliber player and is crucial to the defensive prowess of the Panthers.
"He's got great quickness," said Fedora. "A really quick get off and he is very agile, very good athlete and he's got a great motor. He's got everything you're looking for in a defensive lineman. He's got that motor that he never quits. He always going hard and he is really a good football player. He's an All-American candidate and very well deserving."
Bowl Implications on the Line
Pittsburgh (5-4) currently sits one game shy of bowl eligibility with three ACC opponents left on the backend of their schedule. Chryst pointed to the possibility of earning a bowl bid as further motivation to continue the positive play of his team following the win over Notre Dame in his weekly press conference yet said the next task at hand is simply the Tar Heels. Pittsburgh has been tough at home with just one loss on their field this season.
"I think you approach each game and that the game stands on its own and that's why you play," Chryst said. "I think over the course of the year you earn the right to play another game. We want to make it to a bowl—absolutely want to do that—and it's a chance to play one more game with a team and when you like a team, you get to extend that. That part has value and the practice you get and it signifies you achieved something and truly earned the right for it."