Pitt football readies for up-tempo Tar Heels


Pitt looks for their first win against UNC as a member of the ACC Pitt News File Photo

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

With a tough opponent, a national audience on ESPN and prime-time slot at 7 p.m., Pitt football’s Thursday night game against North Carolina has all the markings of a crucial matchup.

Still, Pitt defensive line coach Tom Sims plays it coy. To him, it’s just another game.

“It is a big game. It’s the game this week,” Sims said. “That’s coach speak, but it truly is. It is a big game because it’s the next game.”

After losing their opener against South Carolina, the Tar Heels have put together a six-game winning streak, overwhelming teams with their explosive, up-tempo spread offense. Compiling 38.4 points per game, North Carolina’s attack ranks 16th in the country.

Though Pitt is familiar with spread offenses, it hasn’t yet matched up with a team that runs an offense as fast as the Tar Heels’. They only average 63.7 plays per game and rank 121st out of 128 teams in total plays. However, they average 38.4 points per game, as their quick offense is functioning extremely efficiently. 

Pitt has worked on adjusting to that pace, junior linebacker Matt Galambos said.

“The biggest difference versus other teams is the tempo. Just a lot more up-tempo, and we’ve been practicing that,” Galambos said.

Fueling the Tar Heels’ offense is senior quarterback Marquise Williams. Williams is a dual-threat playmaker, having thrown for 1,353 yards and 9 touchdowns and rushing for 476 yards and five touchdowns this season. Neutralizing Williams will be important, Narduzzi said, as he’s the engine that runs the offense.

“Marquise is a great player, a big dude, makes great decisions,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a guy who’s not easy to get down on the ground. He operates the no-huddle tempo offense, that’s why they’re number one in the ACC in scoring offense, because he does a good job.”

Staying true to its techniques and responsibilities is key for Pitt’s defense, Sims said, otherwise Williams will take advantage.

“You have to do your job. You have to be very sound in your technique and on your assignments, because if you make a mistake, he will make you pay,” Sims said.

North Carolina’s offense also features talented sophomore running back Elijah Hood, who’s rushed for 646 yards and eight touchdowns. On the passing end, its receiving attack is balanced, with four receivers with at least 300 yards each.

For Pitt, the importance of slowing North Carolina’s offense is twofold, because if they can’t, the offense will be forced to press.

“Offensively, they get to the point where they get up on you on offense and then, what’s the other team do? They’ve got to chuck it to get back in the game,” Narduzzi said. “And they got a good pass defense. Then what do you do? You throw three incomplete passes and then you put that offense back on the field. We got to be leery of that and stick to our game plan.”

On the defensive end, North Carolina has surrendered only 16.7 points per game this season, good for 16th in the country. Its passing defense ranks 2nd in the country, while its running defense ranks 112th.

Mikey Bart, a junior defensive end, leads the teams in sacks with three, while sophomore cornerback M.J. Stewart tops the Tar Heels with three interceptions.

Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman praised North Carolina’s defensive talent.

“I think they’ve got great players. They’ve got a real big, strong defensive front, great players in the back end and they’ve got athletic linebackers also,” Peterman said.

Although the Tar Heels rushing defense has lagged behind statistically, running back coach and special teams coordinator Andre Powell was complimentary of the unit.

“What’s on the tape doesn’t match what’s on paper. They’re talented on defense,” Powell said.

Still, with what might seem like a sore spot in North Carolina’s defense, Pitt’s will look to attack it with a rushing attack that utilizes three running backs, as well as wide receiver Tyler Boyd.

Qadree Ollison has seemed to separate himself as the primary back, coming off a 103-yard performance against Syracuse last weekend. He leads the team with 662 rushing yards.

“He makes the fewest mistakes,” Powell said. “One of the things with winning is eliminating things that cause you to lose. Ollison does that.”

Having lost to North Carolina by a combined 12 points the past two seasons, Pitt will hope to break that streak. Though Sims cautions that Pitt isn’t looking at this as a revenge game.

“Revenge factor, how long does that last? You get hit in the mouth and you’ve got to play,” Sims said.

What the game represents, though, is Pitt’s biggest test this season. Asked if he thinks his team is for real, Narduzzi had a concise response.

“We’ll find out this [week] I guess, right?” Narduzzi said.

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