Thursday Night College Football – North Carolina at Pittsburgh
While Thursday’s ACC matchup isn’t going to make a dent on the national scene or even the ACC standings, North Carolina and Pittsburgh have played four consecutive tight games as ACC foes including one of the better games of the season last year. Two teams in disappointing seasons look for a big late season win in Thursday’s national TV game to start the college football weekend.
Match-up: North Carolina Tar Heels at Pittsburgh Panthers
Venue: At Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Time/TV: Thursday, Nov. 9, 7:30 PM ET ESPN
Line: Pittsburgh -9, Over/Under 52½
Last Meeting: 2016, at North Carolina (-7) 37, Pittsburgh 36
Since Pittsburgh joined the ACC in 2013 the matchup with North Carolina has been an entertaining series with four single-score results and an average of more than 63 points scored per game. The past two seasons this Coastal matchup has carried some weight with both teams in the division race as these teams combined to go 24-9 in ACC games in 2015 and 2016, with North Carolina appearing in the ACC championship in the 2015 season. North Carolina sits at 0-6 in ACC play this season while Pittsburgh is just 2-3 as it has been step-back season for both programs.
A North Carolina program that was routinely stocked with NFL talent but seemed to plateau at 7 or 8 wins in the best years in the 2000s finally had a breakthrough season in 2015, going 11-1 in the regular season and giving Clemson a great game in the ACC championship. The Tar Heels fell back to a modestly successful 8-5 campaign last season and in Larry Fedora’s sixth season in Chapel Hill very little has gone right.
The Tar Heels had to replace the #2 pick in the NFL draft at quarterback and it has been a challenge to replace Mitch Trubisky. Former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris was expected to lead the team but after early season struggles, freshman Chazz Surratt has been the team’s main quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Elliott took the bulk of the snaps two weeks ago in the narrow homecoming loss to Miami after Surratt was injured however as it isn’t clear what will happen under center this week.
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The Tar Heels were a great rushing team two years ago posting 6.0 yards per rush and still a decent ground team last season. This year’s team has gained just 3.8 yards per carry as the poor quarterback play has deteriorated the potential of the entire offense. Sophomore Jordon Brown leads the team in carries and yards but freshman Michael Carter has been a big play threat with seven touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry.
Ryan Switzer had 96 catches for the Tar Heels last season as Trubisky’s favorite target but this year’s team lacks a receiver with more than 20 catches. Brown has 24 catches out of the backfield but the young receiving corps has struggled with the lack of consistency at quarterback and the unit has been beset with several injuries including losing four scholarship receivers to season-ending injuries.
North Carolina is surrendering 33.4 points per game on 447 yards per game ranking 104th nationally in scoring defense and 111th in total defense. The Tar Heels have surrendered 205 yards per game rushing this season on 4.6 yards per carry. The secondary has lost two starters to injury as well as it has been a tough-luck season for the North Carolina roster.
North Carolina has also taken on one of the nation’s most difficult schedules playing non-conference games with California and Notre Dame to add to the 1-8 record on the season. From the Atlantic the Tar Heels played Louisville in September and will face NC State in the season finale for a difficult crossover pull.
While North Carolina doesn’t have a bowl game to play for the Tar Heels have an opportunity on a national stage this week and certainly this is a team that can perform at a higher level than the 1-8 record indicates. Five losses have been decided by 12 or fewer points and the 24-19 late October loss to undefeated Miami shows the potential of this group. Despite playing most of the game with an inexperienced third-string quarterback, North Carolina out-gained Miami 428-415 and might have won if not for four turnovers.
Pittsburgh started the season needing overtime to defeat FCS Youngstown State and most of the first half of the season was a struggle with the Panthers going 2-5 in the first seven games. Pittsburgh played Penn State and Oklahoma State in non-conference action for a very difficult start to the season but with wins in the final two games of October the Panthers are 4-5 and still have bowl aspirations.
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This looks like a must-win game in the postseason goal as the Panthers will close the regular season with games against the top two ACC Coastal squads, at Virginia Tech next week and closing the season lurking as a potential spoiler hosting undefeated Miami.
The Panthers also had to replace a NFL quarterback with Nathan Peterman drafted by the Bills in the fifth round. Peterman actually led the ACC in quarterback rating last season ahead of Trubiksy and Deshaun Watson and he was a key to the success the Panthers have had in Pat Narduzzi’s first two seasons at Pittsburgh with matching 8-5 campaigns and winning ACC seasons.
Pittsburgh thought they had a quick-fix replacement at quarterback with USC transfer Max Browne. Once the most sought after high school quarterback in the nation, Browne struggled as the USC starter early last season facing great expectations. With Sam Darnold clearly establishing himself he looked for another opportunity and wound up at Pittsburgh. His senior season hasn’t worked out as planned who began to split time with sophomore Ben DiNucci after the 1-2 start to the season and then Browne suffered a season ending injury in early October.
DiNucci’s numbers haven’t been stronger than Browne’s even through a lighter schedule but the Panthers are playing better ball in recent weeks. Pittsburgh also lost top running back James Conner to the NFL and the rushing attack took awhile to develop this season. Moving junior Darrin Hall into a more prominent role has paid dividends as he rushed for 365 yards in the wins over Duke and Virginia with four touchdowns.
Pittsburgh’s defensive numbers are only slightly better than the numbers for North Carolina though allowing 92 points in the losses to Penn State and Oklahoma State skew the numbers a bit. In ACC play Pittsburgh has allowed 25.6 points per game compared to 35.0 points per game allowed by North Carolina. Pittsburgh’s run defense was a strength last season allowing only 3.6 yards per rush despite deficiencies against the pass but this year the Panthers have shown improvement against the pass but are allowing 4.5 yards per rush.
Both teams entered this season appearing to head towards rebuilding seasons and certainly Pittsburgh has had a better run towards that aim heading into the final three weeks. A win this week and an upset in one of the final two games can get the Panthers into a bowl game for a 10th consecutive season. For North Carolina this is an opportunity to avoid a winless ACC season with a tough finale at NC State as the only other opportunity. For two teams caught in the middle of the ACC pecking order in now a wide swath of recruiting territory in a 14-team conference, any positive national TV exposure can help the cause.
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Last Season: These teams met in late September in Chapel Hill for an early ACC opener. Both teams were 2-1 with North Carolina losing to Georgia but Beating Illinois and James Madison. Pittsburgh had a marquee win over Penn State but had lost in a shootout with Oklahoma State the previous week. A game that ended with 73 points actually started with a safety and a 50-yard field goal as Pittsburgh led 5-0 at the end of the first quarter. Early in the second half Pittsburgh still had a slight advantage with a 26-16 lead and the Panthers appeared on their way to victory after a fourth quarter field goal made the score 36-23 and the Pittsburgh defense forced a 3-and-out. Pittsburgh had to punt back to the Tar Heels halfway through the final frame and a marginal punt with a strong return shifted momentum back to the Tar Heels. Trubisky converted a big 4th down play with about six minutes remaining and eventually put the Tar Heels in the end zone to close to within six. Conner and Peterman weren’t able to pick up a first down and Trubisky led one of the drives of the season needing 17 plays and three 4th down conversions to eventually score with two seconds remaining for a one-point win.
Historical Trends: North Carolina has won all four meetings as ACC Coastal foes with last season’s one-point win the only missed cover. Since 1982 North Carolina is 6-2 S/U and ATS in this series though Pittsburgh won the only postseason meeting with a 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl win. North Carolina is 11-7 S/U and ATS in road games since 2014 and riding a 15-11-1 ATS run when dogged by 7 or more points going back to 2006. Pittsburgh is just 5-14-2 ATS as a home favorite since 2013, though splitting the two instances this season. Since 2013 Pittsburgh is also just 4-11-1 ATS as a favorite of 7 or more points though losing S/U just twice in that span.