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Preview: UNC defense will look to expose a weak Pitt offensive line on Saturday

UNC then junior defensive linebacker Kaimon Rucker (25) defends Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis at the homecoming football game against Pitt on Oct. 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.

Following a 31-13 win over Minnesota, the No. 17 North Carolina football team will travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers on Saturday night to open ACC play.

The Tar Heels last won at Pitt in 2017 — a 34-31 win that featured UNC quarterback Nathan Elliot and Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci. On Saturday, UNC will need to prepare for signal callers Phil Jurkovec and Christian Veilleux, maintain strong communication on defense and exploit Pitt's weak offensive line.

Here are the keys on the defensive side of the ball to help UNC take down Pitt on the road:

Exploit Pitt’s offensive line

The Tar Heels’ defensive unit racked up nine sacks in UNC's first game against South Carolina. However, North Carolina has recorded just one sack in the past two games.

Pitt’s offensive line is statistically the worst in the Power Five in terms of allowed pressure on the quarterback. Per ESPN's David Hale, Pitt allowed pressure on 44.8 percent of quarterback dropbacks without a blitz — 34 percent more than the Panthers allowed last year.

“We’ve been juggling things up front,” Pitt head coach PatNarduzzi said in a Monday press conference. “You guys can see there’s a different starting offensive line every week. There’s some missing pieces there, and we haven’t done our job to do the protection part of it.”

North Carolina will look to exploit that inconsistency up front to disrupt quarterback Jurkovec and prove that the Tar Heels' first game against South Carolina wasn’t a fluke.

“We’ve just been working every day,” graduate defensive lineman Tomari Fox said in a Wednesday press conference. “We had something to prove, just like every other team in this league, and so we showed up and that’s our goal every single weekend is to show what we’ve been working on every single day since the last game of last season.”

Prepare for quarterbacks Jurkovec and Veilleux

Jurkovec has struggled to start the year, throwing for just 474 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games. In the Panthers’ 17-6 loss last week to West Virginia, Jurkovec tallied just 81 yards and threw three interceptions. 

Narduzzi has elected to stick with the Boston College transfer as the starting quarterback this weekend. Despite Jurkovec's inconsistencies thus far, assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik knows not to overlook him.

“We know this: [Jurkovec is] extremely talented. He, experience-wise, has had a lot of success at other places,” Chizik said. “So he’s really good. Believe it or not, they use him a lot in the run game."

However, it wouldn’t be a surprise — even with Narduzzi’s reluctance to make a change — to see backup quarterback Christian Veilleux make an appearance in the game if Jurkovec's struggles persist. Veilleux demonstrated his capabilities in his one appearance earlier this season, completing five passes for 60 yards and a touchdown against Wofford.

Maintain defensive communication

Toward the end of last week's game against Minnesota, senior linebacker Cedric Gray gave a speech to the defense, which he said emphasized the need to get a stop.

Head coach Mack Brown said on Monday that he was touched by Gray's speech, which he thinks resonated deeply with the players.

"That's when I said, 'Yes, we're getting better,” Brown said of Gray's leadership. "'We’re getting there.’”

Continued defensive communication against a physical Panthers team will be crucial to UNC's success on Saturday. Senior defensive back Don Chapman said the Tar Heels' ability to relay information allowed for the team to play fast and execute its game plan against Minnesota.

“We’re talking [and] we’re communicating on the sideline what we see on the field,” Chapman said. “Next guy’s going in the game and he’s already knowing from the past guy who was just in, what they were doing."


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