The UNC Tarheels are heading to Pittsburgh in a matchup between two teams desperate for a win. Both need a win to continue to change the perception of their season; UNC wants to prove they’re better than their 1-5 start and Pitt is eager to grow off of the Notre Dame upset that may have been a season-changer. UNC is hot; they’ve won three straight games by an average of 21 points. Pitt has lost two of their last three, but last week’s upset suggests they may be ready to put their mid-season struggles behind them. It’s safe to say UNC and Pitt have reasons to be optimistic headed into Saturday’s contest.
On offense, UNC is heavily QB oriented with athletic sophomore Marquise Williams at the helm. Senior QB Bryn Renner is out for the rest of the season, but the offense didn’t miss a beat against Virginia with 415 total yards and 31 points (14 were scored by an interception and punt return). Williams is a prototypical mobile QB; he’ll run a lot but will struggle with accuracy and footwork (only 58% completion). He makes up for that with big plays. He’s averaging 13.1 yards per completion which is nearly two yards better than Renner.
When Williams goes to the air he has two great options. TE Eric Ebron is one of the best TEs in the country and may go to the NFL early after this season. He’s capable of putting up huge numbers against good opposition; he had 8 receptions for 199 yards and a score against Miami in a close loss. Ebron can cover the whole field and presents a matchup nightmare like any talented TE. At WR, sophomore Quinshad Davis is quietly emerging as one of the top playmakers in the ACC. He’s tied with FSU’s Rashad Greene for the top spot in receiving touchdowns (8). At 14.6 yards per reception, he’s not just catching screen passes either.
The running game, however, leaves a lot to be desired. UNC is using a four RB rotation, which should tell you right away something is amiss. Those four have combined for 203 carries, only 873 yards, and 5 touchdowns. For perspective, James Conner and Isaac Bennett have combined for 211 carries, 1020 yards and 11 touchdowns. They’re 106th in the country in rushing offense, which is a pathetic number when you have a mobile QB with 247 yards on the ground. Pitt’s numbers are comparable, but the huge amount of sack yardage, which the NCAA oddly considers rushing yards, drops the total dramatically. UNC did get the running game going against Virginia last week, but UVA appears to be a team who has completely given up on their season with seven straight losses.
It may not be entirely the fault of the RBs though. Their OL leaves a lot to be desired in pass protection as well. They’re allowing an average of 2.4 sacks per game, good for 90th out of 125 teams. 106th in rushing yards and 90th in sacks per game? Their OL may be as bad as Pitt’s has been. Like Pitt, their OL is young and still in progress. However, LT James Hurst has NFL potential.
The one thing Pitt’s defense has to be ready for is a trick play. UNC has run a WR or RB pass type play four times this season. The result? Four completions for 143 yards and three touchdowns. If UNC gets down early, they’ll open up the playbook to try and catch Pitt napping. With a mobile QB and numerous players who can complete a pass, those types of things are always a concern.
If this offense is going to work, Marquise Williams (I like typing Marquise for some reason) has to find ways to get the ball to Ebron and Davis or else their offense is doomed. They can’t run the ball and they don’t have much in the way of playmakers outside of those three. Williams has thrown an interception in both starts (4 total on the season). If the defense can fluster him and keep him contained, the Tarheels will struggle to score. If he has time and space, he has the ability to make big plays. Pressure and containment from the DL will be a huge factor and expect Aaron Donald to take advantage of an inexperienced right side of the OL.
I normally recommend a QB spy against mobile QBs, but an incredible TE like Ebron requires extra help. A 1 on 1 with a LB or S is a matchup he wins 99% of the time. If you pull a guy from coverage, that’s the guy who should be helping with Ebron. I think we’ll see a bit more zone coverage this week along with more five or six man rushes. Since the DEs are struggling to pass rush, have them play a little containment on the outside and pressure up the middle. Force Marquise Williams into quick decisions.
On defense, UNC’s 4-2-5 is rather mediocre. They’re 71st in total yards (89th rushing, 32nd passing) but better at only 54th in points (25.2 ppg). They’re sacking the QB less than twice per game and average about the same in takeaways; both of which rank on the low side of the middle of the pack. Pitt has seen the 4-2-5 already this season from Duke and it’d be a dream come true to see similar results. UNC’s is slightly different in that on top of the hybrid S/LB, they have a hybrid DE/LB who will play off in more of a 3-3-5 look at times. It’s useful because you can move him to either side to take advantage of mismatches.
There’s a reason UNC is 89th in rushing yards allowed: one less full blown LB means there’s one less big guy in the front seven. The 4-2-5 is more common in college football lately due to the usage of spread offenses; teams are afraid of speed on the outside, so they sacrifice strength on the inside. Establishing the run will be the key to scoring. When ECU dropped 55 points on this offense earlier in the season, they did so with 200+ rushing yards on the ground. Miami, South Carolina, Boston College, and Georgia Tech all ran the ball down the Tarheels’ throat for 200+ yards as well. Three of their past four opponents had 200+ rushing yards.
The key to UNC’s recent defensive improvement has been in the passing game. In the past three games, they’ve only allowed 391 yards through the air (130 per game) along with four interceptions, five sacks, and only one touchdown (which was in junk time by UVA’s backup QB). It hasn’t exactly hurt that BC and UVA are two of the worst passing offenses in the ACC, but results are results.
This shows how critical it will be for Tom Savage to continue to play disciplined and find the open receiver. The offense must establish the run, avoid turnovers and big mistakes, then take their shots. The running game was barely good enough against ND to force them to respect it. Once it was there, deep shots were available. Get the hybrid S/LB creeping up to the line of scrimmage and the offense’s job will get a lot easier.
There are two other important factors regarding the game. First will be penalties. UNC is 114th in the nation in penalties per game. Even in an easy victory like last week against UVA, they had 13 penalties for 102 yards. A bunch of them were stupid penalties like illegal formation and false start. UNC puts Pitt to shame when it comes to shooting themselves in the foot. Second is home field advantage. Pitt has won every game but against FSU at home. UNC is 1-3 on the road. Pitt’s offense plays a lot better at Heinz Field.
I think Pitt will scratch and claw to a close victory, 27-24. The offense likes home field and pulls off the win thanks to a huge game from James Conner, who takes advantage of the 4-2-5.