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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC football prepares for ACC opener against Pittsburgh

UNC cornerback Patrice Rene (5) tackles James Madison's Domo Taylor (3) on Saturday.

UNC cornerback Patrice Rene (5) tackles James Madison's Domo Taylor (3) on Saturday.

Up to this point in the season, the North Carolina football team (2-1) hasn't played a game that directly affects its goals — winning the ACC Coastal Division, claiming a conference championship and sweeping its in-state foes.

But that changes with the game against Pittsburgh (2-1) on Saturday, a matchup that marks the end of the Tar Heels' three-game non-conference slate and the start of their ACC schedule.

“We have three preseason games, and now we are going to start conference play,” said defensive back Patrice Rene. “That’s where it really starts to matter. We are going to be ready, and I think the team is all fueled up — the defense especially. We know what we have to do.”

In their 56-28 win over James Madison, UNC allowed 495 yards in the game and 21 points in the first quarter. And after Tuesday’s practice, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik didn’t hold back in assessing how his defense played.

“I thought we performed poorly — that’s probably being very kind,” he said. “I thought we were soft. I thought it was a very disappointing performance all the way around.

"Soft defense is a choice, and that’s the choice that we made. So we’ve got to improve a lot this week, or this game could get ugly.”

Chizik and the entire defense understand that they must be better this week, because the Pittsburgh offense is powerful. Last season, the Panthers gained 153 rushing yards in a 26-19 loss to UNC.

But in that game, Pittsburgh was without running back James Conner, who missed nearly all of 2015 with a knee injury. But after beating Hodgkin lymphoma this offseason, Conner is back and among the ACC's best backs this season.

“He’s the same guy he was before,” Head Coach Larry Fedora said. “It’s great to see, for that young man, what he’s overcome and what he’s done. To be back to where he was, I think it’s a great story. It really is.”

In 2014, Conner ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the Tar Heels' 40-35 win at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Running back Elijah Hood still remembers watching Conner from the sidelines two seasons ago.

“Obviously, I know he’s a dangerous back," Hood said. "He’s huge. Normally, guys that big don’t move that fast. I feel like I’m kind of big, but he’s really big.”

On the offensive side of the ball, UNC will have to deal with an aggressive Pittsburgh defense led by Head Coach Pat Narduzzi. Hood said the Panthers will blitz on half of their plays and are especially dangerous on third downs.

“They have an exotic blitz package on third down and bring a lot of people, and they bring a lot of pressure from a lot of different angles,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “It’s probably unique, every third and long this season, they’ve brought a different blitz every time.

“You don’t see that — ever.”

Despite the Panthers' constant pressure, Kapilovic said the Tar Heels can’t fall into the trap of just throwing the ball on every down to counter Pittsburgh's aggression.

Oklahoma State did that last weekend against the Panthers, throwing for 540 passing yards in a 45-38 win. It worked for them, but the Tar Heels rely more on a well-rounded offensive attack.

“You just can’t count on that," Kapilovic said. “Yes, we have talented receivers that hopefully hit a few. But... we are our best when we are balanced.”

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com

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