CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– With three statement victories under their belt, No. 17 North Carolina is looking to capitalize off these wins as they head into conference play this weekend, facing the Pittsburgh Panthers tomorrow at 8:00 p.m.
“We’ve got to fight our guts out and be able to handle success,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We know how they’re gonna play, the question will be how are we gonna play because we haven’t responded well to success.”
Traditionally, the series between these two has two things: points and physicality. Twelve of the last 16 matches have been decided by single digits, with the average margin of victory being just 5.7 points.
With four ACC schools ranked in the AP Top 25 this week and UNC having to face two of those opponents down the schedule—No.18 Duke and No. 20 Miami—the test they’ll be faced with this weekend will be a strong indicator of whether or not this team is ready to take on conference play, or if they still need some polishing.
The Panthers will be looking to avenge last season’s 42-24 loss in Chapel Hill— a defeat that snapped a two-game win streak for Pitt. However, tomorrow will be Pitt’s first time back playing on their home turf since those overtime losses which occurred in 2019 and 2021.
With a win tomorrow, North Carolina would start the season 4-0 for the first time since 1997, which was also the final season of Mack Brown’s first stint in Chapel Hill.
“There’s only four teams nationally that have won two non-conference games against Power 5,” Brown said. “So this is a huge week for us, but we also haven’t responded very well after positives. We haven’t handled success very well. We gotta get used to winning again.”
With this comment, Brown was referring to the Tar Heels abysmal end to the 2022 season with four straight losses to finish 9-5 for the year.
Pitt’s offensive struggles, however, could favor the Tar Heels and lead them to an easy win. Across three games they haven’t quite figured themselves out yet, leading to several early mishaps. The Panthers have suffered a poor start to the season with a 26-21 week two loss to Cincinnati and a 17-6 beatdown by West Virginia last Saturday. The culprit behind these losses? A myriad of issues that touch nearly all parts of Pitt’s offense from their offensive line and quarterback, all the way down to the running backs.
The line has allowed pressure on 44.8% of quarterback drop-backs so far this season, shedding light on their pass protection problems. Transfer redshirt senior quarterback Phil Jurkovec has completed just 46.7% of his passes for 6.3 yards
per attempt, and four touchdowns. The past two games, he’s completed 18-of-52 passes for 260 yards, been sacked six times and thrown three interceptions, raising questions about whether or not he would earn another start tomorrow.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is unfazed by Jurkove’s numbers and made it clear at a press conference earlier this week that the vet will be starting again tomorrow.
“He’s a leader in that huddle,” Narduzzi said earlier this week. “He’s a guy you trust. You see it every day. When you look back and you look at all the stats and all the numbers of what you put through camp and you put on paper and what you’ve shown to do as far as not throwing interceptions in practice. Now obviously games are games. You just don’t dump things like that. You just don’t do it. That’s just a
philosophy and where I’m coming from.”
The offense is also hinged on waiting for one of their running backs to emerge. They are looking at Vincent Davis, Rodney Hammond and C’Bo Flemister to fill the gap as the leading back for this season, with none registering more than 65 yards in a game.
If Pitt doesn’t clean up these issues before tomorrow night they’re at risk of having their first 1-3 start since 2017, which marks the program’s only losing season under the tenure of Narduzzi. And if the Tar Heels are looking to escape with another win, they must prove their head coach wrong and respond well to the positives and make history.
- Nate McCollum: The Tar Heels might have found their next star receiver in Nate McCollum after the transfer found himself just one catch shy from the single-game reception record last weekend against Minnesota, a game where he finished with 15 catches for 165 yards and a big 46-yard touchdown for his first score of the season. As the No.1 option in the receiving core, McCollum is primed to make some great plays tomorrow.
- Drake Maye vs. the Panthers Defense: UNC’s Heisman standout has fallen out of the trophy odds, however it is not due to his lack of production but rather the production of other quarterbacks around the country. After a 2022 season where he finished with 5,019 yards of total offense and 45 touchdowns, three games in he’s completed 72.5% of his passes – going for 8.7 yards per attempt (891 yards total) and clocked 116 rushing yards ,including a rushing touchdown and four touchdowns to go along with four interceptions. Drake’s duality in his passing play and run game will be essential against a Pittsburgh defense that loves to blitz and is not afraid of physicality. They have put down nine sacks across three games, ranking fifth overall in the ACC. If Drake and his o-line are consistent tomorrow, he has the potential to make some big plays down the field for the Tar Heels and pull away from the grip of the Panthers.
Who: North Carolina (3-0, 0-0 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (1-2, 0-0 ACC)
When: Saturday, September 23rd, 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Last Meeting: UNC, 42-24
ACC Series: UNC leads 7-2
All-Time: UNC leads the series 11-5