Heel Tough Blog: Pittsburgh Preview

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

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The Tar Heels will have to win two of their final three games to make a bowl game in Mack Brown’s first season back on the sidelines. Mack Brown first career meeting with a team that the Tar Heels have taken the last six meetings from will be the first test. Let’s get you ready for the Heels Thursday night matchup with at the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels offense has hit their stride since the first bye week, led by the law firm of Williams, Williams and Carter in the Tar Heel backfield. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo has finally let the run game carry this offense which in turn has opened up the deep passing game. Javonte Williams (132 rush, 738 yds, 3 TD, 11 rec, 110 yds) has been leading the way, but he may be slowed this week by an injury suffered against Virginia a couple of weeks ago. That means Michael Carter (123 rush, 629 yds, 0 TD, 15 rec, 123 yds, 2 TD) and Antonio Williams (20 rush, 137 yds, 0 TD, 1 rec, 7 yds) could see expanded roles, both of which are capable options in the backfield. They will hope to find success against one of the top run defense teams in the country and open up that deep passing game that has thrived with the arm strength and deep ball accuracy that Sam Howell (174-299, 2472 yds, 26-5 TD-INT, 77 rush, -16 yds, TD) possesses. With the help of Dyami Brown (32 rec, 679 yds, 8 TD), who is coming off a 200-yard performance against Virginia, Dazz Newsome (46 rec, 647 yds, 6 TD) and Beau Corrales (27 rec, 342 yds, 5 TD), Howell has put together a phenomenal start to his career that has caught the attention of many around the country. The offensive line remains the only glaring question mark on the team, as the Tar Heels have struggled to keep pressure off of their quarterback. Against one of the top pass rushing teams in the country, the unit will have to find a way to give Howell time to throw if they want to be able to move the ball on this Pittsburgh defense. The return of Nick Polino (15 career starts), a player they can use at guard or center, is a big boost that could go a long way to helping the Tar Heels achieve that.

The story of this Tar Heel defense has become a negative one with the struggles of this beat up secondary. Both Trey Morrison (26 ttkl, 0.5 TFL, 3 PD) and Myles Wolfolk (25 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 3 INT) returned from injury against Virginia, but were ineffective in their first games back. Cornerbacks Greg Ross Jr. (24 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 5 PD) and DeAndre Hollins (10 ttkl, PD) have been picked on often in man coverage pretty often over the last two weeks and Storm Duck (23 ttkl, 2 PD) is working through an injury of his own that slowed him down against Virginia. The defensive line hasn’t been able to provide much help over the past few weeks. It doesn’t help that opposing quarterbacks are getting the ball out quickly and forcing those struggling corners have to make plays one-on-one, but the Tar Heels defensive line hasn’t been able to get much push up front, especially in pass rushing situations where they rush just three or four. Guys like Jason Strowbridge (33 ttkl, 5.0 TFL, 1.5 scks, FF, 3 FR) and Tomon Fox (42 ttkl, 7.5 TFL, 5.5 scks, 2 FF) must step it up in the final three games so the Jay Bateman doesn’t have to keep scheming to get pressure. The linebacking corps still remains a huge positive for this defense, though, thanks to Chazz Surratt’s (90 ttkl, 10.5 TFL, 5.0 scks, FF, INT, 2 PD) breakout season at middle linebacker and Jeremiah Gemmel (65 ttkl, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 scks, 2 FF, 2 PD) and Dominique Ross’ (38 ttkl, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 scks, FF, INT, 3 PD) steady progression throughout the season.

Special teams has been through some ups and downs so far this season, but the unit seems to be peaking at the right time. Noah Ruggles (25-25 XP, 13-19 FG, Long of 49) has regained his confidence after his benching following the Virginia Tech game and outside of one shank against Virginia, Ben Kiernan (48 punts, 41.4 avg) has been a steady force at punter. The return games remain in solid hands with Michael Carter (12 KR, 25.8 avg) and Dazz Newsome (9 PR, 7.0 avg) and the coverage units have shown improvement after a shaky start to the season.


The Pittsburgh offense has lived and died by the run over the last few seasons, but Pat Narduzzi’s offense is lacking that punch this season, leaving behind an offense that struggled to move the football and score points. Quarterback Kenny Pickett (197-323, 1952 yds, 9-8 TD-INT, 61 rush, 89 yds) has been counted on more so far this season, but despite a solid year, still is nothing more than a game manager at quarterback. It helps Pickett that Taysir Mack (53 rec, 610 yds, 2 TD) and Maurice Ffrench (75 rec, 606 yds, 3 TD) have had strong seasons, but no one else on the team has more than 209 yards receiving. The Panthers would love for the running game to come alive late in the season and that has to start with A.J. Davis (89 rush, 407 yds, 3 TD, 17 rec, 209 yds), who leads the team in rushing to this point. The Pittsburgh offensive line will need to help pave the way, something they’ve struggled to do so far this season.

The strength of this Pittsburgh defense lies in the front seven. The Panthers are one of the top pass rushing teams in the country led by Patrick Jones II (26 ttkl, 9.0 TFL, 7.0 scks, 4 FF, PD) and Jaylen Twyman (26 ttkl, 8.0 TFL, 7.0 scks, PD), who are two of four Panthers with 4.5 or more sacks. The front seven is also a big reason why the Panthers have one of the top run defenses in the country. Saleem Brightwell (38 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 0.0 scks, PD) and Phil Campbell III (34 ttkl, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 scks, 2 FF, FR, INT) have thrived in the middle of the defense, while the stars of the secondary, Paris Ford (56 ttkl, 0.5 TFL, 0.0 scks, 2 FF, 3 INT, TD, 7 PD) and Damar Hamlin (49 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 0.0 scks, 7 PD), have been a huge help, as well. They are also part of a Pittsburgh pass defense has allowed under 200.0 yards per game through the air, as are corners Dane Jackson (29 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sck, INT, 10 PD) and Damarri Mathis (16 ttkl, 2.0 TFL, 0.0 scks, INT, 10 PD) have had nice seasons.

The Panthers special teams has been solid all season, led by punter Kirk Chistodoulou (47 punts, 42.7 avg). Kicker Alex Kessman (20-21 XP, 14-21 FG, Long of 54) has found his groove after a slow start, while Maurice Ffrench (4 KR, 17.3 avg, 26 PR, 6.0 avg) has been solid, yet unimpressive as both the kick and punt returner.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 27.9 (76th)

Off. PYPG: 277.4 (31st)

Off. RYPG: 168.4 (62nd)

Off. TYPG: 445.8 (37th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 37.6% (88th)

Def. PPG: 27.1 (T-63rd)

Def. PYPG: 234.9 (78th)

Def. RYPG: 161.4 (67th)

Def. TYPG: 396.3 (69th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 38.3% (63rd)

Sacks: 24.0 (T-36th)

Interceptions: 8 (T-45th)

Turnover Margin: +3


Off. PPG: 20.9 (111th)

Off. PYPG: 249.1 (46th)

Off. RYPG: 130.9 (T-106th)

Off. TYPG: 380.0 (87th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 39.6% (72nd)

Def. PPG: 20.1 (24th)

Def. PYPG: 194.3 (27th)

Def. RYPG: 85.9 (7th)

Def. TYPG: 280.2 (9th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 29.5% (9th)

Sacks: 40.0 (3rd)

Interceptions: 7 (T-63rd)

Turnover Margin: -5

Keys to the Game

Limit the Pressure on Howell

This will be a tall task for the Tar Heels on Thursday, but if this offense wants to continue to move the football as effectively as they have in their past two games, they have to limit the pressure this Pittsburgh’s defensive line gets on their young single caller. The return of Nick Polino is a big boost, especially if he can play significant snaps, and the team needs to utilize the quick passing game that was so successful against Duke and South Carolina to alleviate the effect of this Pittsburgh pass rush.

Run the Football to Open Up the Passing Game

Pittsburgh does bring one of the best rushing defenses in the country into Thursday night’s meeting, but the Tar Heels have had success on the ground in each of the prior two games against stiff run defenses. This is strength against strength and with the Tar Heels boasting a three headed rushing attack in the backfield, they should still go in with the mindset of running the football to get this offense moving.

Get Pressure on Pickett

Pickett has been solid so far this season for Pittsburgh, but he is still far from a game changer at quarterback. In big games, Pickett has struggled, especially when teams have been able to get pressure in his face. The Tar Heels defensive line has had their issues since the first bye week of the season, but they need to come alive in this game to provide pressure on Pickett in this one.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Matthew Flint (leg), Brandon Fritts (knee), Cam’Ron Kelly (knee), Trey Morrison (arm), Patrice Rene (knee), Bryson Richardson (knee), Tre Shaw (lower body), Myles Wolfolk (upper body)

QUEST- Jace Ruder (lower body)

PROB- Storm Duck (lower body), Nick Polino (lower body), Javonte Williams (ankle)


OUT- Keyshon Camp (knee), Tre Tipton (knee), Rashad Weaver (knee)

QUEST- Will Gipson (undisclosed), Todd Sibley Jr. (undisclosed), Albert Tucker (undisclosed), Kyle Vreen (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels



# 7 Sam Howell, Fr.


#25 Javonte Williams, So. OR

# 8 Michael Carter, Jr.


# 2 Dyami Brown, So.


#15 Beau Corrales, Jr.


# 5 Dazz Newsome, Jr.


#84 Garrett Walston, Jr.


#67 Charlie Heck, Sr..


#75 Joshua Ezeudu, RFr. OR

#63 Ed Montilus, RFr.


#68 Brian Anderson, So. OR

#58 Nick Polino, Sr.


#73 Marcus McKethan, So.


#74 Jordan Tucker, So.



#56 Tomari Fox, Fr. OR

#51 Raymond Vohasek, So.


#92 Aaron Crawford, Sr.


#55 Jason Strowbridge, Sr.


#12 Tomon Fox, Jr.


#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, So.


#21 Chazz Surratt, Jr.<