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Pitt faces Louisville with ACC Coastal still in reach

Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Nathan Peterman and the Panthers fell 37-36 to the North Carolina Tar Heels in Saturday's game. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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Coming into the season, the Pitt football team set itself a high goal: win the ACC.

Before the Panthers even step onto Heinz Field at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, though, that goal could already be off the table.

North Carolina, who leads the ACC Coastal by one game, can clinch the division with a win against Virginia Tech at noon Saturday. Still, Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman insists his team won’t pay attention to the outcome.

“I don’t think so, I know I won’t. We’ve got enough things to worry about,” Peterman said.

Pitt’s (7-3, 5-1 ACC) next challenge comes in the Louisville Cardinals (6-4, 5-2 ACC), who’ve won four in a row and six of their last seven games.

After starting the season with three straight losses, head coach Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals have found their stride, led by a balanced attack on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Louisville functions with an ever-changing unit in personnel and scheme. Throughout the season, Pitt has thrived in making second-half adjustments to pull ahead. Against Louisville, the Panthers will have to adapt earlier, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

“We’re going to have to make first-quarter adjustments because they do so much stuff,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t know what formation or personnel grouping. They probably have eight to 10 personnel groupings that they’re going to have on the field.”

Preparing for the Cardinals has been tough, as Narduzzi knows the tapes and gameday can show two different teams.

“It’s a different game plan every week. You can run all the plays they’re going to run, but every week it’s a different offense you’ll see,” Narduzzi said.

Even at quarterback, Louisville has favored change, implementing both Kyle Bolin and Lamar Jackson. Bolin has served as the starting quarterback the past two games, while Jackson, the starter at the beginning of the season, featured last week situationally in running the ball. Jackson is Louisville’s leading rusher with 529 yards, while Bolin has tallied 501 passing yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks.

In the passing game, 16 different players have caught a pass this season, with wide receiver James Quick leading the group with 29 receptions for 437 yards.

Pitt linebackers coach Rob Harley lauded the Cardinals’ entire offense.

“They’ve got a little chip on their shoulder. They’ve got a little swag to them,” Harley said. “They pose some issues with their athleticism and how hard they play.”

Still, Harley is confident after last week’s win against Duke, when the Panthers allowed just 13 points. He sees the defense starting to pick up on the intricacies of the scheme.

“You’re really starting to see these guys kind of learn those little nuances, and I think it showed on Saturday,” Harley said.

Though Petrino made his name through his offenses, it’s the defensive unit that has been superior for Louisville. Allowing just 311 yards per game, Louisville’s defense ranks 14th in the country. It’s thrived in stopping the running game with an 11th-ranked run defense and in pressuring the quarterback with 28 sacks, good for 19th in the country.

Louisville linebackers Trevon Young and Devonte Fields lead the defense with 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, respectively.

Still, Pitt’s offense, which scored 31 points with 268 rushing yards Saturday, enters the game with momentum.

“We’re just getting better every week, and to be quite honest with you, I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential as an offense,” running back Qadree Ollison said.

Ollison was key to Pitt’s success running the ball, accumulating 111 yards. Though Pitt’s most successful outings offensively stem from running the ball well, Narduzzi will adapt to the opponent. Against a stout Louisville run defense, the model to win might not be the same as it was last week or in past weeks.

“Every week you could say that’s the blueprint, but this weekend, going in against a top-11 team in the country in rush defense, you could find out, ‘Hey, what happened to that blueprint,’” Narduzzi said.

Whatever happens in Pitt’s outing or in the North Carolina game, safety Reggie Mitchell said the goal is to finish the season strong and let the rest figure itself out.

“We’re just trying to stay focused, practice hard for these last two weeks and get nine wins,” Mitchell said.

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Pitt faces Louisville with ACC Coastal still in reach