After defeating the Wake Forest Demon Deacons — first-place team in the ACC Atlantic division — over the weekend, the North Carolina football team will look to knock off the best team in the ACC Coastal division, the No. 25 Pittsburgh Panthers, Thursday at Heinz Field.
UNC is 6-1 in its last seven meetings with Pittsburgh — however, none of those games were decided by more than a touchdown. The opening odds have suggested a continuation of this trend, as Pittsburg is projected to win by five points.
The Tar Heels will have to overcome these odds in addition to the shortened rest time that comes with a midweek game to ensure bowl eligibility by getting their sixth win of the season this week. Prioritizing the following two aspects in preparation for Thursday may spell victory for North Carolina.
Strong pass rush
For the second consecutive game, the UNC defense is faced with a Heisman-contending quarterback.
Last week, Wake Forest sophomore Sam Hartman dominated the Tar Heel secondary with 398 yards and five passing touchdowns. North Carolina’s defense had no answer until its pass rush stepped up, eventually totaling two sacks and six quarterback hurries.
This week, the secondary will be tasked with an even greater challenge. Pittsburgh’s senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has arguably been the best in the ACC at his position. He currently ranks fifth in the country in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns, but what may be most intimidating is his efficiency, as he has accumulated these statistics at the expense of just three interceptions all year.
Given his relatively infrequent mistakes, UNC’s pass rush will have to deliver once again in order to generate sacks, or at the very least, force Pickett to use his legs.
Graduate linebacker Tomon Fox, sophomore defensive lineman Myles Murphy and sophomore linebacker Kaimon Rucker will play a critical role in this regard. These three players alone are responsible for over half of the Tar Heels' total sacks, and will certainly continue to look to disrupt the opposing quarterback in this primetime matchup.
Josh Downs, and then who?
The Pittsburgh Panthers have a strong, well-rounded defense to be sure. However, both of their losses this season had one thing in common: an impressive passing display from the opposing signal-caller. In their games against Western Michigan and Miami, the Panthers allowed more than 300 passing yards from the quarterbacks they faced.
Fans of UNC football know that junior quarterback Sam Howell is capable of such a game on any given day as long as he has options downfield. This leaves North Carolina’s receivers as the offensive X-factor this week.
Howell’s favorite target this season has been sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs. Already having amassed 74 receptions, eight receiving touchdowns and over 1,000 receiving yards this season, Downs has at least doubled UNC’s next best receiver in each of these statistical categories. This evidence casts doubt upon any concern surrounding Downs’ two-game slump without a touchdown and is compounded by the fact that he had at least one touchdown in every game this year except that most recent pair of games.
The team's main concern is its second option in the passing game alongside Downs. The Tar Heels’ receiver room has been a bit of a one-man show this whole season, which was less alarming before the transfer of sophomore Khafre Brown and junior Emery Simmons. Now, senior Antoine Green has been cemented in the depth chart as WR2. Beyond him, tight ends Kamari Morales and Garrett Walston will have to step up in order to prevent the Panthers from simply doubling Downs.
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