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Panthers ride key conference win into battle with Tar Heels

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The North Carolina Tar Heels defeated Pitt 34-31 in the team’s matchup at Heinz Field last November.

The North Carolina Tar Heels defeated Pitt 34-31 in the team’s matchup at Heinz Field last November.

TPN file photo

TPN file photo

The North Carolina Tar Heels defeated Pitt 34-31 in the team’s matchup at Heinz Field last November.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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Head coach Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers will make their first road trip of the season as they head to Chapel Hill to face off against head coach Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels on Saturday. The Panthers are coming off of a solid 24-19 conference win against Georgia Tech that led them to a 2-1 record. UNC is winless through two games after their Week 3 matchup against the University of Central Florida was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence.

Narduzzi’s squad will look to avenge last year’s 34-31 loss at Heinz, which was one of only three wins UNC managed on the season. It was arguably Pitt’s worst loss, because the Panthers had superior talent and a better record, yet still fell to the Heels.

A few changes that have occurred in the Panther offense will have big implications on the outcome of Saturday’s meeting.

Last year, Pitt’s offensive game plan revolved around quarterback Ben DiNucci and running back Darrin Hall. While DiNucci put up a mediocre statline, Hall rushed for 121 yards and four touchdowns.

This season sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett stands at the head of the offense, and while Hall has still been involved all season, fellow senior running back Qadree Ollison has maintained a firm grasp as Pitt’s primary rusher.

Ollison is off to a great start, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and 94.3 yards a game while reaching the end zone three times. On the other hand, Hall has looked sharp at times when offensive coordinator Shawn Watson utilizes him, and he reached the end zone against Georgia Tech. However, it’s clear Ollison has made the best impression on the coaching staff, as he has seen more than double the number of carries compared to both Hall and sophomore A.J. Davis.

It may not matter who the Panthers decide to place in the backfield this weekend, as the Tar Heel defense presents an appetizing matchup for running backs. UNC has allowed an average of 190 yards a game on the ground in its two contests, while also giving up five touchdowns. UNC’s subpar rushing defense gives Ollison an excellent chance to stay hot and continue his two-game scoring streak this week. Ollison reached the end zone against the Nittany Lions and scored twice last week.

While the Panther ground game has looked stellar through three weeks, the passing attack has yet to really shine. Double-digit leads against Albany and Georgia Tech made throwing the ball unnecessary, and the weather against Penn State made it impractical.

Pickett looked good against Georgia Tech even though he wasn’t asked to do much. His flea flicker to redshirt sophomore receiver Taysir Mack was a thing of beauty, and had he thrown the ball on his interception a second or two earlier, it very likely could have been a touchdown that put the Yellow Jackets away.

Panther receivers are severely lacking in the statistical department so far due to the flow of games. Redshirt senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes leads the team with nine catches and caught Pickett’s two TD passes against Albany. Mack is the only receiver to eclipse 100 yards on the season at 148, and 60 of those can be attributed to reeling in the flea flicker against Georgia Tech.

These stats should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. The Panther offense is more geared toward moving the chains and sharing the ball, as opposed to going for the end zone to a one-star player like a teenager playing Madden. Pickett was never going to sling 70-yard bombs every other possession, even though he has big play capability in him.

It does become worrying when an offense that’s built to control time of possession and keep their defense off the field fails to do so, especially in the second half. The Panthers have yet to score a TD in the final-two quarters of play, and kicker Alex Kessman’s 33-yard boot was Pitt’s first score in the second half all season.

Against the Yellow Jackets, Pitt’s three offensive possessions aside from the field goal led to an interception and two punts. This may not matter against teams like Georgia Tech, and presumably UNC if the Panthers play as well as they did this past week in the first half. However, if these woes continue, strong starts likely won’t cut it when Pitt travels to powerhouses like Central Florida and Notre Dame.

Defensive coordinator Randy Bates’s unit got the job done against Georgia Tech’s triple option, holding a team that scored 38 points in Week 2 to half that amount. Captain and Mike linebacker Quintin Wirginis, junior safety Damar Hamlin and redshirt sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver led the charge with seven tackles apiece. Wirginis also tacked on his second sack on the season.

Although 320 rushing yards seems like a lot to give up, the Panthers’ defensive line and linebackers played some stout defense. Georgia Tech was unable to get much running the ball up the middle. Most of the big gains occurred when the triple option went to the outside, either on a QB keep or a pitch to the back.

The Panthers do need to do a better job of containing the outside run and forcing the RB to cut back inside. The stats were also inflated by long runs of 42 and 33 yards and a final, meaningless Yellow Jacket possession with four minutes left in the game.

As for the secondary, strong safety Dennis Briggs and his fellow defensive backs held the Georgia Tech offense to a measly 66 yards through the air, and redshirt senior corner Phillipie Motley managed a pick on a deep TaQuon Marshall shot. UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott and his offense will give the Pitt corners and safeties more action this weekend.

Elliott has thrown for only one score this season, while tossing four picks, all in Week 1 against California. Even if he hasn’t been impressive, Elliott will at least give the secondary more opportunities to defend the pass than Georgia Tech. Marshall only managed 15 attempts last week, while Elliott has dropped back 35 and 38 times in UNC’s two games. The Tar Heel signal caller passed for 235 yards and two TDs in the matchup last fall, so he shouldn’t be underestimated despite his poor performance through two weeks.

UNC running back Jordon Brown only managed 70 yards in the contest last year, and he has yet to eclipse 100 total rushing yards for UNC this year. Fellow RB Antonio Williams has taken the reins this year for the Heels — whether Brown, Williams, or Elliott carry the ball, Pitt should find success keeping the ground game in check.

One area Pitt has found success in is making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers have recorded seven sacks and 20 tackles for loss this season. Expect Wirginis, Weaver, redshirt sophomore defensive end Keyshon Camp and the rest of the front seven to continue blowing up plays and getting into the backfield.

Prediction

Pitt: 31  North Carolina: 21

Senior Qadree Ollison will keep things rolling on the ground against a vulnerable Tar Heel defense. Kenny Pickett will also continue to get the job done in his own ho-hum ways. Look for Taysir Mack and Rafael Araujo-Lopes to keep making plays. The Panther defense will buckle down once more, as Wirginis and company’s hard-nose style shuts down Nathan Elliott and his squad in Chapel Hill. Unlike last year, this contest won’t be too close, and the Panthers will show they’re a different team than last year by continuing to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. Narduzzi and his squad will ride a two-game winning streak into a matchup with top-20 Central Florida which will really show what this Panthers team is all about.

 

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Panthers ride key conference win into battle with Tar Heels