PITTSBURGH - Julius Peppers received all the motivation he needed from a photocopied article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Pittsburgh left tackle Mark Browne criticized Peppers during the week leading up to Saturday's contest between the Panthers and North Carolina, and the comments soon became the framework for a story detailing just what the Panther senior thought about the UNC sophomore.
The trash talk didn't go unnoticed by some of Peppers' teammates, who delivered two copies of the story to him. Browne said teammate Bryan Knight and Syracuse's Dwight Freney were better defensive ends than Peppers. And Browne wasn't worried at all about matching up with Peppers.
"He had his opinions of me," Peppers said. "He said he didn't think I was that good."
Peppers proved Browne wrong on Saturday night. Peppers tallied two and a half of UNC's six sacks in the Tar Heels' 20-17 victory against Pittsburgh. With Pittsburgh facing a fourth-and-10 from its own 40 with less than two minutes remaining, Peppers evaded Browne and sacked reserve quarterback David Priestley to seal the Tar Heel win.
"I was just happy because I knew the game was over," said Peppers, who tied Greg Ellis for the second-most sacks in a season for a Tar Heel with 12.5.
"I knew it was fourth, and we had finally preserved the win. That's all that was going through my mind, just joy, happy that we had won the game."
Peppers and the Tar Heel defensive line left Pittsburgh's players wondering if they had approached the game against North Carolina with the proper mentality. The Panthers practiced last week like they were facing a team that was no better than the 3-5 record it owned.
Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris was concerned that his team was going to take the Tar Heels too lightly. Pittsburgh's performance on Saturday did nothing to change his mind.
"I warned our players that we better bring our `A' game," Harris said. "I did not recognize some of the things we were doing out there. I think we underestimated our opponent."
The Panthers didn't seem concerned that the Tar Heel defense had accumulated 39 sacks through eight games. Forget that Peppers had 10 sacks already.
UNC had given up more than 200 yards rushing in two of its last three games, so its defensive line was nothing to lose sleep over.
All the Tar Heels did was limit Pittsburgh to 63 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Panther tailback Kevan Barlow gained 77 yards on 15 carries, but UNC's defense had 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Peppers was doing a lot of the damage, but he had help. Reserve defensive end Joey Evans had one sack and three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and defensive tackle Anthony Perkins contributed half of a sack.
"I just think, when guys saw them on film, we knew they were big, but I think we underestimated them as a line," Pittsburgh center Jeff McCurley said. "We came out there in the first series and realized how physical they were. I just don't think that we were ready to play against them."
Although Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Byrant had a field day with eight catches for 212 yards, the UNC defensive line put enough pressure on Priestley that he couldn't connect with Bryant on the Panthers' final drive.
Evans batted down a Priestley pass on first down, and Priestley had to throw the ball away on second down to avoid a sack. Bryant lost a pass in the lights on third down, and Priestley didn't have time to look his way on the next play. Peppers had already swarmed in for the sack.
"The pressure up front was good," UNC coach Carl Torbush said. "Julius obviously made some big-time plays again. Our defensive backs were challenged, and we put them on some islands. They responded some and got beat some and kept fighting back."
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