Preview | Panthers playing to save postseason aspirations against Tar Heels


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Senior running back Vincent Davis (22) runs with the ball during Pitt football’s game against Rhode Island in September.

By Dalton Coppola, Sports Editor

The Pitt football team broke down its pre-practice huddles with the phrase “National Champions” at training camp this season. In years prior the Panthers broke down with “ACC Champs,” signifying what that season’s ultimate goals are.

This year has not gone according to plan. Pitt is in a hole with three overall losses, two of which are in-conference. Unfortunately for the Panthers, this season will not end in any sort of championship, barring a collapse from North Carolina and a complete 180 from Pitt.

Pitt is now playing to qualify for a bowl game in 2022.

Teams qualify for a bowl game once they win six games in their schedule. The Panthers have four at the moment, but their remaining schedule is no cakewalk. Pitt has five games remaining, three of which are against teams with winning records. The team needs to win two of those to qualify for a bowl game.

The Panthers (4-3, 1-2 ACC) have an opportunity to inch closer to a postseason berth this weekend against the No. 21 UNC Tar Heels (6-1, 3-0 ACC). 

UNC boasts a stout and electrifying offense, leading the ACC in scoring, total offense and passing yards. The Tar Heels bid farewell to their longtime quarterback Sam Howell when the Commanders drafted him in the fifth round of the NFL Draft this past spring. But first-year quarterback Drake Maye is filling in seamlessly for the Tar Heels.

Maye looks like a seasoned veteran, throwing for over 300 yards or more in all but one game this year. His decision-making is also way ahead of most first-years in the country, with a stellar touchdown to interception ratio of 24-3. He’s also completing over 70% of his passes this season. Heck, even if the pocket collapses he’s shown opponents he can burn them with his legs.

The Panthers need to have their game plan for Maye perfected come Saturday night, or he will make them pay. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said he thinks the UNC offense is a great challenge for his defense this weekend.

“I think they’ve got one of the top offenses in the country, top 10 in about every category,” Narduzzi said. “The Maye kid is outstanding, the receiver Josh Downs too. They’re dominant right now. Defense will have a great challenge. Offense has got to rebound and take the football and score points.”

But there’s a flipside to that coin. The Tar Heels have the lowest ranked defense in scoring, passing and rushing in the ACC. Maye bails out his defense nearly every week, putting up monster numbers. Pitt can take advantage of the Tar Heels’ poor defense.

How they do this lies squarely on offensive play-caller Frank Cignetti Jr. The Panthers’ passing game is not what it was last year. Senior quarterback Kedon Slovis is making too many mistakes for the offense to rely on scoring via the pass.

But on the other hand, junior running back Israel Abanikanda leads the nation in rushing touchdowns with 13 and is no. 4 in total rushing yards with 959. While the Tar Heels will likely strike faster than Pitt will, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Offenses that rely on a run game inherently take up more time on the clock, grinding out every single yard. If the Panthers can successfully eat up clock and score via the run, this will give the defense ample time to recuperate energy and game plan for the next drive.

While the Panthers need to prepare for a shootout with the Tar Heels, they also need a game plan that is tailored to their strengths. Right now, that is running the football.

Prediction: UNC hands Panthers third conference loss, winning 31-20

While Pitt is certainly running the ball with conviction this year, the offense is too one-dimensional right now. It’s a heck of a lot easier to stuff the run when the defense knows what’s coming.

Maye is simply too hot right now and the Panther secondary is facing their toughest challenge since the Tennessee Volunteers and Hendon Hooker. Truthfully, I expect the Pitt defense to bring it against the Heels. But the offense won’t do the defense many favors, continuing to stall early and often.

Unless Slovis puts things together quickly, the Panthers are in trouble this weekend.

Pitt’s clash with the Tar Heels will kickoff at 8 p.m. in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The game will air on ACC Network.