Football: Panthers look to gain bowl eligibility with win against Tar Heels


Fresh off its fifth win, an uplifting triumph against Notre Dame, Pitt’s football team will become bowl-eligible with at least one more victory in its remaining three games. Recent history might not be on the Panthers’ side, but lady luck hasn’t exactly been kind to their opponent for Saturday, either.

Though the Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) have appeared in five consecutive bowl games, it has taken them two shots to get their sixth win in two of the past three seasons.

This season’s squad gets its first go at reaching bowl eligibility against North Carolina, which is riding a three-game winning streak despite losing senior starting quarterback Bryn Renner to a separated shoulder on Nov. 2. The injury, which Renner suffered while sliding after a quarterback scramble, was a bleak end to both his North Carolina career and also what appears to be the team’s bowl hopes.

The Tar Heels (4-5, 3-3 ACC) replaced the gunslinging Renner, who ranks third all-time at North Carolina in career passing yards and second in touchdowns, with Marquise Williams, a fleet-footed redshirt sophomore who led the team to a 45-14 win against Virginia last Saturday.

Pitt’s coaching staff noted that there was no noticeable drop-off in talent under center for North Carolina in the wake of Renner’s injury, given Williams’ freakish skill set.

“The guy they got playing right now is really, really athletic,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “It’s a little bit different now. Renner was really good, and he threw the ball around really well — but this guy, he does more.”

Head coach Paul Chryst added, “He’s athletic and has a live arm. Obviously, they trust him quite a bit. He has good weapons around him. I think he’s dangerous.”

House described North Carolina’s offense as up-tempo, which is why the electric Williams found playing time even when Renner was healthy, seeing snaps as a read-option quarterback. Williams and the briskly-paced offense are buoyed offensively by one of the country’s top tight ends, Eric Ebron, and a stable of sturdy running backs. 

Ebron, a junior, leads the team with 46 catches and 690 receiving yards, and has three touchdowns on the season. His 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame makes him a coverage mismatch for cornerbacks, and his sneaky speed allows him to slip by most linebackers.

“I think tight ends, in general, are tough if you’ve got a good one, and he might be as good as there is in the country,” Chryst said of Ebron.

The Tar Heels boast a diverse running attack, featuring three runners who have gained at least 245 yards this season. One is Williams. The other two are senior A.J. Blue and sophomore Romar Morris, who both average over four yards per carry.

“They are all a little bit different,” Chryst said of the committee of backs. “Every back I’ve ever been around has been a little bit different. They’re not all the same guy, and we’ll see a lot of different guys with the ball. We have to make sure we’re sound against whoever is in.”

Pitt failed to defend the run effectively against Notre Dame, yielding 133 yards, but the effort was balanced out by the Panthers’ own dominant offensive line. The collection of bruising offensive linemen provided redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage the time and space he needed to throw for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought we did a lot of good things [against Notre Dame], and you can put the offensive line into that group,” Chryst said. “It wasn’t like there was all of a sudden some great transformation. We made some plays for different reasons, and the offensive line was a big part of it.”

Savage’s play lifted Pitt for its fifth win. Now the redshirt senior, in his last season to play in a college bowl game, could give the team eligibility with another strong performance Saturday.

The Panthers and Tar Heels last met Dec. 26, 2009, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, a last-minute 19-17 win for Pitt.

But the teams aren’t fixated on that bowl game or any other; they’re focused on continuing the team’s hot streak.

“I mean it’s hard not to think about [bowl eligibility],” Savage said. “Obviously, you want to get that bowl game [bid], but I think you just gotta focus play by play. … It would be fun, especially for the older guys, too, because they’ve been through a lot, so it would be cool to get that extra game for them.”

Chryst echoed the quarterback’s sentiments, adding: “We want to make it to a bowl — absolutely want to do that — and it’s a chance to play one more game with a team. And when you like a team, you get to extend that. That part has value and … it signifies you achieved something and truly earned the right for it.”

Still, Chryst’s goal is to win Saturday.

“I think right now we have to focus on this week and find a way to win against North Carolina,” Chryst said.