The Pittsburgh Panthers have just begun their fourth football season in the ACC, but fans in the Steel City have likely already developed a strong dislike for North Carolina. In three previous meetings with the Tar Heels, the Panthers have lost by seven points or fewer each time.
With the Coastal division in the ACC wide open and a distinct matchup advantage, now is the time for the Panthers to rise to the challenge and overcome the annual thorn in their side.
This will be the first conference game for both squads, and each team enters this week at 2-1. North Carolina lost its first game of the season against Georgia, while Pittsburgh fell to Oklahoma State last Saturday.
But the key matchup (and Pittsburgh advantage) in the game will be the Panthers’ running attack against the suspect rushing defense of North Carolina.
It’s a small sample size, but Pittsburgh has averaged 239 rushing yards per game, which is ranked 21st in the country and fourth-best in the ACC. Behind the return of redshirt junior James Conner and a few other key running backs, the Panthers average nearly 5.0 yards per carry.
Conner, who had to overcome an MCL injury and cancer to return to the field this fall, has 281 yards and three touchdowns this season. Redshirt sophomore Qadree Ollison, who rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman in Conner’s absence last year, hasn’t gotten going much yet, but fellow sophomore Quadree Henderson has 153 yards and two scores on just 11 rushes.
Those three runners have to be salivating to face the Tar Heels’ defense, which gives up 226.67 yards on the ground per game. Again, it’s a small sample size, but North Carolina was actually even worse last season, allowing 247.36 rushing yards per contest.
Georgia junior star running back Nick Chubb had a field day versus North Carolina, rushing for 222 yards and two scores on 32 carries. As a team, the Bulldogs gained 289 yards on the ground against the Tar Heels.
But if Pittsburgh plans to knock off North Carolina for the first time since joining the ACC, the Panthers will need better quarterback play to give the offense some balance. Redshirt senior quarterback Nathan Peterman completed 73.3 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns versus Penn State, but it was only for 91 total yards.
Last week against Oklahoma State, Peterman had 237 passing yards, including a 60-yard strike, but he completed just 48.3 percent of his attempts. He will have to bring it all together to give Pittsburgh a chance to win on the road at Chapel Hill, because more than likely, this contest is going to be a shootout.
The Tar Heels may have problems defensively, but their passing offense remains one of the best in the Coastal division. Redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky is in his first year of starting and through three games, he has a 73.6 completion percentage for 853 yards and five touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer alone has 17 receptions, 221 yards and a score.
North Carolina ranks third in the ACC behind only Syracuse and Louisville in passing yards per game.
Despite the loss to Georgia and the emergence of Miami, North Carolina is still very much a popular pick to win the Coastal division, but prior to the season, Pittsburgh was widely considered a sleeper for the division title.
Last week, the ACC saw the Atlantic division sleeper, Louisville, pummel one of the favorites, Florida State. It’s now time to see whether the Panthers can fulfill their preseason hype as the Cardinals did last Saturday.