Prediction: Pitt to overcome its Achilles Tar Heel


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt football’s ACC schedule was revealed Wednesday.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Everything and everyone has a fatal weakness. For Superman, it was kryptonite. For rock, it’s paper. The Death Star had its self-destruct point. Achilles had his heel.

And Pitt football has the North Carolina Tar Heels.

The Panthers have lost to good UNC teams, like the one that won the ACC Coastal in 2015. They’ve lost to bad UNC teams, like the one that entered 2017’s matchup with a 1-8 record. It hasn’t mattered if the Tar Heels were world-beaters or bottom-dwellers — Pitt has lost all six of its matchups since joining the ACC in 2013.

Over that same period, the Panthers have beat the other 12 teams in the ACC — even the eventual National Champion Clemson Tigers on their own turf in 2016. But UNC, for reasons that can’t be explained by logic or science, has bested Pitt with shocking regularity.

Pitt (6-3 overall, 3-2 ACC) is coming off a bye week to host the Tar Heels (4-5 overall, 3-3 ACC) at Heinz Field this Thursday at 8 p.m. The narrative is glaringly obvious. Is this the year the Panthers end the curse and snap their agonizing losing streak? Or have they simply been doomed by the football gods to lose to UNC for all eternity, with Thursday marking another annual trip to Disappointment City?

If there’s one thing we know with near certainty, it’s that the game will at least be close. The two teams’ past eight matchups have been decided by a combined 31 points, or an average of 3.9 points per game.

This year’s Tar Heels are neither incredible nor awful. Their 4-5 record indicates a middle-of-the-pack team, but that’s a bit misleading. All of UNC’s losses have come by seven points or fewer. That includes its greatest accomplishment of the season, a 21-20 loss to undefeated Clemson, but also its biggest blemish — a 34-31 loss to Appalachian State.

After going 2-9 with a second-straight last-place finish in the Coastal just a season ago, UNC hit the reset button by canning head coach Larry Fedora and bringing in college football legend Mack Brown, who won a National Championship with Texas in 2005 and previously coached the Tar Heels from 1988 to 1997.

It’s safe to say that Brown has sped up the program’s rebuild in a major way, as UNC started the season with impressive wins over South Carolina and Miami that would have been unfathomable a year ago. His biggest accomplishment may have been bringing in first-year quarterback Sam Howell, who has already established himself as one of the premier passers in the conference.

Howell has been nothing short of spectacular — his passing efficiency of 153 ranks 26th in the nation and fourth among first-year signal-callers, while his 274.7 passing yards per game ranks 17th. His two favorite targets, sophomore Dyami Brown (32 receptions for 679 yards and eight touchdowns) and junior Dazz Newsome (46 receptions for 647 yards and six touchdowns) are nightmares for opposing defensive backs.

Luckily for the Panthers, they have a couple defensive backs who are nightmares for opposing receivers. As of Nov. 4, Pro Football Focus graded redshirt senior Dane Jackson and junior Damarri Mathis as the second- and fourth-best cornerbacks, respectively, in the ACC. And behind them lies redshirt sophomore safety Paris Ford, the team leader in interceptions and tackles.

Howell will certainly have his work cut out for him, and the intergame matchup of UNC’s passing attack against Pitt’s secondary could be what determines the outcome. The Tar Heels run a spread-out scheme not unlike the one Pitt saw from UCF in Week 4. In that game, Pitt combated the Knights’ aerial attack by applying frequent pressure to the quarterback, finishing with six sacks.

Getting to the quarterback has been the Panthers’ biggest strength all season — they rank second in the nation with 4.44 sacks per game. And for all its passing success, UNC actually struggles to protect Howell in the pockett, allowing the 12th-most sacks per game in the country with 3.22.

Of course, the Panthers can sack Howell until they’re blue in the face, but it won’t matter if their offense can’t put points on the board. This is something Pitt has especially struggled with in its last two games, scoring a combined 32 points and frequently settling for field goals in the red zone.

To win, Pitt must be more efficient on offense. This starts with the play-calling from offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. The Panthers have shown a maddening tendency to get conservative once ahead, opting for short screen passes that move nowhere. Some have suspected that Narduzzi is to blame. Regardless, it has to change.

Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett has one of the nation’s best one-two punches in senior Maurice Ffrench and redshirt junior Taysir Mack. But Whipple has to trust his quarterback and open up the offense a bit. Yes, Pickett has struggled with turnovers recently, throwing two picks in each of his last two games. But against a middling UNC pass defense, the opportunity is there for Pickett to connect on some crucial completions to put his team ahead.

Thursday night will be a back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire game. Those brave enough to sit in the freezing Heinz Field stands — and miss watching the hometown Steelers playing at the same time, much to Narduzzi’s annoyance — are in for a spectacle.

Howell has a strong arm and loves to take deep shots down the field, so expect several pass interference penalties called against Pitt. Once in the red zone, however, the Panthers tend to buckle down, and UNC’s spread offense isn’t built to produce in short-yardage situations.

PREDICTION: This is the year that rock finally beats paper. The Panthers, going against every natural law of the universe, will beat North Carolina. Pitt’s front seven will get after Howell all game long, sacking him at least five times and knocking him down several more. He’ll retaliate with a couple long — but ultimately futile — touchdown passes.

Pitt is going to turn the ball over. They’ll commit penalties galore and probably throw a special teams mistake in there just for good measure. It’s what they do. But the Panthers will win in spite of this thanks to their world-class defense, while the offense strings together a couple competent drives. This close battle could come down to a field goal, which bodes well for Pitt considering redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman has been unflappable in recent weeks.

The Panthers come out on top Thursday night, and who knows? You might see a few pigs flying around on Friday morning.

Pitt: 26, UNC: 23