The road to the ACC championship game could have a clearer picture after this weekend. Two of the best three teams in the ACC Coastal division will square off as the Pittsburgh Panthers (2-1) travel to Chapel Hill to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels (2-1). The winner of this game will have the higher ground against the other in a tight Coastal division. Here are five things to look out for in this highly touted matchup (ESPNU, 3:30).
The Panthers are 6-2 on the road against ACC opponents in the last two years, going 4-0 last season. However, even with the Panthers’ recent success on the road, they haven’t been able to win in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have won eight straight at home, their longest streak since 1997. UNC head coach Larry Fedora knows his team must come in focused saying, “This will probably be the best team we’ve played to this point, so we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Run, Run, Run
The obvious offensive game plan for the Panthers will be to run the ball down the Tar Heel’s throats. With 717 total rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the year, this isn’t much of a different game plan than other games. The Tar Heels can’t stop a nosebleed when it comes to the run, allowing 680 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this season. Look for a big day out of the entire running back corps, but especially James Conner. He is already up to 281 yards and three touchdowns on 63 carries this season for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Fix The Secondary
Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky is coming off his best career game, throwing a career-high 432 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-28 win against James Madison. The Panthers secondary was just got torched by Oklahoma State, giving up 540 yards through the air. Head coach Pat Narduzzi called out the entire defense, taking special note of cornerback Avonte Maddox, who was on the wrong end of the majority of Oklahoma State’s James Washington’s 296 receiving yards. Narduzzi said, “They’ve got to understand it works when you do it right. It doesn’t work if you don’t do it right. If you continue to do it your way, we’re going to have problems.” Trubisky doesn’t make many mistakes, as he has eight touchdowns and zero interceptions this season.
Strength Vs. Strength
Besides Trubisky and the air attack, the Tar Heels will also feature first team All-ACC running back Elijah Hood in their offense — who UNC faithful will swear blind is as good as if not better than Conner and FSU’s Dalvin Cook. Hood will have his work cut out for him,though, as the Panthers own the 10th best rushing defense in the country. Pitt gives up just 75.7 yards per game on the ground. Hood is 37th in the nation and 6th in the ACC with 266 yards, 15 yards behind Panthers running back James Conner.
Ejuan Price vs. UNC Offensive Line
The matchup to look out for is Panthers’ senior defensive lineman Ejuan Price against the Tar Heels offensive line. Price was just named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week after his six tackles, four tackles for losses, two sacks, and one forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. Price has been a monster this season and is on track to be in the All-American conversation. Price leads the entire nation in forced fumbles, and ranks fourth in sacks and tackles for losses. Tar Heels tackles Bentley Spain and Jon Heck will have to be accountable for Price all afternoon long. The Tar Heels have given up 16 sacks this season, including an astonishing 12 against Illinois.
Last season, UNC went 8-0 in ACC play, including a 26-19 victory against Pittsburgh. UNC went on to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship, losing to Clemson 45-37. With Miami off to a hot start, this game has a lot of stake for each team’s playoff hopes. The Panthers must take advantage of UNC’s weak run defense and must neutralize Mitch Trubisky’s passing attack. If the Panthers can break the Tar Heel’s eight game home winning streak, they will be in prime position to play in the ACC Championship game.