“This is a very physical defense,” Longo said. “They’re very physical up front, I think they’re a lot better than they were last year. They pursue well, they stay home, they don’t give up a lot of trick plays, they don’t make a lot of mental mistakes."
Still, it's likely that could be the perfect night for first-year quarterback Sam Howell to show off his skills against single coverage.
But UNC’s offensive line will need to protect him to give him time against a formidable Panther defensive line.
“The challenge is protection,” Brown said. “They really rush the passer well and they do it by scheming a lot … We can’t end up in second and long or third and long.”
Giving Howell time is the key for the UNC offense. The first-year QB will be able to make plays in the passing game, but the Tar Heels can’t be forced to make long plays as often as they were against Virginia. In nine games, UNC has given up 29 sacks, but when Howell has had time to operate, he's been exceptional.
The Panthers have all the trademarks of a team that is led by a defensive-minded head coach — even in their offense.
“Coach Narduzzi, I’ve known him for a long time, I have a lot of respect for him,” defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. “You see a defensive-minded coach’s influence on their offense. They’re gonna bring an extra O-lineman, they’re gonna try to run power.”
Thursday night’s matchup has all of the makings of a low-scoring, pound-it-out game. In addition to a tough Panthers defense, the Tar Heels will also be facing another opponent for the first time this season — cold weather, with a high of 45 in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Head coach Mack Brown, though, is embracing the challenge. If his team gets a win against the Panthers, it would all but guarantee a bowl appearance for 4-5 UNC, with FCS opponent Mercer next on the schedule.
The Tar Heels will brave the elements with as much at stake as they've had all season.
“It’s gonna be really cold,” Brown said. “We’re lucky it’s gonna be 30 degrees here tomorrow and 16 mile per hour winds, so we’ll probably practice outside and let them get ready to go to Pitt. We’ll say, ‘Welcome to Pittsburgh.’”
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