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Preview: UNC football looks to extend win streak in homecoming game against Pitt

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UNC freshman quarterback Drake Maye (10) runs with the ball during the football game against Duke on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at the Wallace Wade Stadium.

On Saturday, the UNC football team will return to a sold-out Kenan Stadium for its homecoming game against Pittsburgh.

Boasting a record of 6-1 and leading the ACC Coastal division by a significant margin, the Tar Heels are looking put their foot on the necks of the Panthers. 

North Carolina is riding on a high — already bowl eligible after just seven games and coming off a hard-fought win over Duke — but the team still has to battle through five conference games before the end of the regular season. The team, which entered the season under the radar, has now found itself ranked at No. 21 in the AP Poll. 

But to continue this run of success, the Tar Heels will seek to enter the final stretch with the same underdog attitude they've had throughout the first half of the season. 

“It matters what you do when you're ranked more than getting ranked,” head coach Mack Brown said in a press conference Monday. “The only ranking that matters is the one at the end of the year.”

This weekend will be an important test for North Carolina, who hopes to return to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2015. A home victory against the Panthers would strengthen the Tar Heels' position atop the Coastal division and solidify them as a threat in postseason play.

In order to emerge with the win and keep their ACC record unblemished, here's three things UNC must focus on: 

Limiting Pittsburgh’s rushing ability 

The Panthers have been productive on offense this season, especially in the run game. Pitt boasts several weapons such as junior running back Israel Abanikanda, who ran for 320 yards in their matchup against Virginia Tech earlier this month. In contrast, the Tar Heels were only able to put forth 160 rushing yards as a team against the same opponent. 

“(Pitt has) got the best running back in the country, he's leading the nation in rushing,” Brown said. “We haven't stopped the run as well as we need to. We haven't tackled as well as we need to. And those are two things that we have to do this weekend to have a chance to win.” 

North Carolina's defense will need to step up and place a strong emphasis on preventing explosive plays from the ground that have the potential to sway the outcome of the game. 

“He's got tremendous vision and he's got great speed," assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. "His ability to make cuts in the field at the second level is what really separates him from pretty much everybody else.”

The Tar Heels' ability to stop the run — something that they have failed at previously — will be crucial in their bid to clinch the victory. 

Using all aspects of the offensive line 

The North Carolina offensive line has stood out all season as one of the best in the nation, mostly due to its significant depth. 

UNC has also capitalized on redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye’s ability to make reads quickly and complete passes to many different receivers. Big plays from the air have been the team's preferred method of scoring this year. 

“Having the full cast of weapons in the offense with regards to being able to push the ball to either wide out, the slot receiver, the tight end, the back field — to me that's the best balance you can have on offense and we have it right now,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. 

This ability to rely on the offensive line as a whole will be a key component in combating Pitt’s aggressive pass rush. 

“They're exceptional up front, as they have been the last two times that we played them,” Longo said. “It's going to be a physical battle on Saturday.” 

Finishing strong 

Perhaps the biggest marking of an effective team is its ability to finish out close games. This has plagued the Tar Heels in the past, as UNC lost its two most recent matchups with the Panthers in overtime.

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“They've been tougher than we have,” Brown said of their previous meetings. “They've made the plays at the end of the game that we haven't.”

This year's team has placed a big emphasis on not squandering games in the fourth quarter, and that was evidenced by several close wins this season. Against Duke, Maye turned a three-point deficit into a victory with just over two minutes left on the clock. 

“This team is finishing better than last year's team,” Brown said. “This team is more mature than some we've had.” 

The ability to stay calm throughout the game will be crucial on Saturday. Pitt has been competitive against most of its opponents this season, notably taking now-No. 3 Tennessee to overtime back in September.

The Tar Heels, who have seen many of their games decided in the final minutes, are no stranger to close games either, and Saturday could add yet another chapter to this trend.

“They don't panic,” Chizik said. “I think that's a huge reason why in a lot of these games that are close and come down to the end, even though there's times when we haven't played great, we've found a way to win.” 

@PeaceGwen

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.