UNC’s seventh conference contest lacks both a favorite and an underdog as Vegas has consistently listed this game as a pick’em throughout the week. Saturday’s matchup marks the first ACC clash between these two programs and represents the first meeting since Pitt defeated the Tar Heels in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl.
UNC (4-5, 3-3 ACC) needs two wins in its final three games to become eligible for the postseason. After Pitt, the Tar Heels close out their schedule with home games against Old Dominion and Duke. The Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC), coming off a 28-21 victory over Notre Dame, have a trip to Syracuse and a home finale against No. 23 Miami remaining after Saturday.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams (55-of-94 passing, 722 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT; 247 rushing yards, 2 TD) will get his third start of the season – and second straight since Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury – as UNC seeks its third-straight win.
The Tar Heels are averaging 35.3 during their winning streak as Williams has become a focal point in the offense.
“We were really pleased with the way he managed the game,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “And he's done a good job of taking care of the football. All we're asking of our quarterback is to take care of the football. Then also just manage the offense. And that means to distribute the ball where it's supposed to go according to what the defense gives you. Not try to force things. I think he's done a good job of moving the chains.”
Pitt will counter with fifth-year senior quarterback Tom Savage (155-of-254 passing, 2,022 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT) and the nation’s 106th-ranked offense (346.9 ypg). Isaac Bennett (600 yards, 5 TD) and James Conner (420 yards, 6 TD) provide a solid tandem in the offensive backfield while wide receivers Tyler Boyd (729 yards, 6 TD) and Devin Street (766 yards, 6 TD) serve as quality passing targets.
“They’ve got some tremendous players,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “They probably have two of the better receivers we’ve played or will play all year. They’ve got some good running backs. Schematically, I used to go against Wisconsin and I know how hard some of that running game is to stop, so it’s going to be a test for us.”
Saturday’s contest, however, will likely be decided by defense.
UNC’s defense has been playing with plenty of confidence since the beginning of October as the Tar Heels have held four of their last five opponents below 390 yards of offense. The key to UNC’s improvement has been a reduction in broken plays in the secondary combined with better pressure up front.
“I think their scheme is a good scheme,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. “It can stress you at different points… It's a well coached team right now because they're playing within the scheme. But the scheme allows their players to turn it loose. So you just see them playing, therefore, making plays and playing fast.”
While Koenning has talked often about simplifying his approach, he told reporters this week that there was not a significant difference on the call sheet from the first game to the last. Rather, the simplification process has occurred in meetings, walkthroughs and practice.
Koenning and his staff have worked to avoid paralysis by analysis by not giving the defense too many opponent looks to study. He indicated that UNC’s most basic game plan came against East Carolina, which resulted in 55 points and 37 missed assignments.
Koenning stopped short, however, of saying that he was encouraged by his defense’s recent play.
“I’m not as discouraged as I was earlier,” Koenning said. “I was obviously discouraged. I would say I was extremely disenchanted by the way we had been playing and the way I thought we needed to play. At least we’ve been acting like we’re coached and doing things we’re supposed to do. Hopefully we’ll keep doing that.”
Pitt, on the other hand, ranks 41st in total defense (376.0) and 63rd in scoring defense (26.1), although those statistics are skewed by Florida State and Duke combining for nearly 1,100 yards and 96 points early in the season. The Panthers’ last six opponents have averaged 18.7 points and 341.5 yards of offense.
Against Notre Dame last weekend, Pitt was able to make defensive plays at critical junctions to secure the win.
“The game is something you've got to go play and it's not going to be perfect,” Chryst said. “But there are moments you feel you need to make a play, and I think that's probably the biggest difference is at the times we need it maybe most we were able to make a play.
“In the end you give yourself a chance to win by doing enough good things. Then you have to find a way to win, and that is usually a play here, a play there.”
Whoever makes those plays on Saturday at Heinz Field will likely emerge victorious.