When the Tar Heels take the field on Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Panthers, they will do so looking for their second 4-0 start in the last 40 years. To get there, the team will have to find a way to do something they haven’t done so far under Mack Brown, win a road game in Pittsburgh. With the Panthers struggling to begin the season, this one feels like the perfect opportunity to exorcise some demons and show that they are working towards being great as they stated their goal was in the preseason.
The story of the Tar Heels this season has been their ability to win their first three games in three different ways. A dominant defensive line performance led the way in Charlotte, while it has been the rushing offense and passing offense that has been the reason for the wins in the last two weeks, respectively. Last week’s big passing day still left some concerned about Drake Maye, despite him throwing for 414 yards and two touchdowns. His two interceptions were uncharacteristic mistakes from him which have been more common from him the last seven games he’s played, but he showed that he still has that ability to take over a game like few others in the country can do. The pass-catching group received a major boost with Nate McCollum returning in full this past weekend and he made his impact felt immediately (15 rec, 165 yds, TD). With him looking like he already has a good rapport with Maye in the slot, this will allow for Kobe Paysour, the team’s leading receiver in the first two games of the season, to move to the outside to try to help solve the issue of inconsistency out there. The tight end group is a reliable one that bounced back from a rare quiet performance against Appalachian State and did so with John Copenhaver, the offseason star, still limited with a hand injury. The running struggled a week ago but has had a pretty good year overall. The backfield duo of Omarion Hampton and British Brooks is one capable of carrying this offense if needed and the depth is there at the position, as well. The reason the unit struggled so much last week was because of the issues the offensive line had in run blocking with left guard Willie Lampkin’s absence. The hope is that Lampkin can return this weekend and help the unit, which had a good showing in pass protection against Minnesota.
On the defensive side of the football, the team has clearly taken a step forward from last year. The defensive line is still looking for consistency, especially on the interior of the unit, but some of the talent and depth is starting to show up. Kaimon Rucker and Des Evans are off to really strong starts on the edge rushing the passer, but the unit needs more on pass downs from the tackles. The linebackers, Cedric Gray and Power Echols, are still amongst the best in college football despite not being nearly as productive as they were last year because of the help around them. The duo has made some nice strides in pass coverage after being exposed repeatedly in that area a year ago. The help they are getting comes from a secondary that has also improved this season. Both Don Chapman and Giovanni Biggers have been better all around than last year and the corners are playing really well. The staff may have found something with Armani Chatman at the outside corner spot this past weekend to pair with the duo of Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen that is off to a nice start.
The Tar Heels special teams unit has been defined by change so far this season. Ryan Coe had an up and down first two games before missing last week with a lower-body injury. That meant Noah Burnette was forced into action and he had a good day for himself, potentially grabbing the job back after losing it this offseason. At kick returner, the second returner spot, which has been the only one to field a kick this season, has alternated back and forth between D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood with neither having returned a single kick so far this year. The good news is, the rest of the unit seems pretty steady, led by punter Ben Kiernan and punt returner Alijah Huzzie, who are off to real solid starts.
When we say that this is a Pittsburgh team that is struggling out of the gate, it’s really referring to the fact that the team’s offense has been brutal in the first three weeks of the season. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who transferred in from Boston College this offseason, has simply been putrid in the last two games, completing just 34.6% of his passes for just 260 yards and thrown three interceptions. The pass-catching group isn’t nearly as strong as they have been in the past, but the Tar Heels secondary will have to watch out for Gavin Bartholomew and Konata Mumpfield, the team’s two leading receivers. The offensive line is another area that isn’t nearly as strong as it has been in the past, especially on the interior of the unit. Still, the unit will play with a lot of physicality and test this Tar Heels defensive front that is looking to bounce back this weekend. The strength of this unit is the running game once again, but even this room isn’t as strong as in the past. The Panthers will rotate three different running backs in Rodney Hammond, C’Bo Flemister and Daniel Carter, a group that is averaging just 4.4 yards per carry.
While the Panthers offense has struggled, the defense is still really good. The defensive line isn’t nearly as dominant as they have been in the past, but they still a very solid room led by edge rusher Dayon Hayes. Like the Tar Heels, the team is using a lot more rotation in than in the past to find success up front. The secondary might be the best part of this defense right now, as they don’t have a single player that has allowed more than 79 yards in coverage so far this season. This will clearly be the most significant test this team will face so far this year, but the group is off to a promising start. The team may be allowing more yards on the ground than through the air, but that speaks more to have good the pass defense has been than anything. The linebacker trio of Solomon DeShields, Bangally Kamara and Brandon George have led the charge here and they have gotten some nice help from the safeties Donovan McMillon and Javon McIntyre.
The special teams unit is a solid, yet unimpressive unit. Punter Caleb Junko has a huge leg and can flip field position easily and kicker Ben Sauls is a reliable option who hit 20 field goals a season ago. The return games have been ok, but aren;t game changing in any way.
Off. PPG: 34.0 (T-46th)
Off. PYPG: 297.0 (24th)
Off. RYPG: 197.3 (32nd)
Off. TYPG: 494.3 (19th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 65.1% (2nd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 12.0 (T-19th)
Sacks Allowed: 4.0 (T-40th)
Def. PPG: 21.3 (T-59th)
Def. PYPG: 253.7 (103rd)
Def. RYPG: 129.0 (75th)
Def. TYPG: 382.7 (T-97th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 35.8% (T-53rd)
Tackles for A Loss: 21.0 (T-31st)
Sacks: 10.0 (T-15th)
Interceptions: 3 (T-45th)
Turnover Margin: -1 (T-77th)
Penalties Per Game: 5.7 (T-59th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 52.0 (T-72nd)
Off. PPG: 24.0 (T-94th)
Off. PYPG: 178.0 (111th)
Off. RYPG: 143.3 (82nd)
Off. TYPG: 321.3 (T-114th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 41.5 % (70th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 16.0 (T-62nd)
Sacks Allowed: 7.0 (T-81st)
Def. PPG: 17.0 (T-40th)
Def. PYPG: 114.0 (3rd)
Def. RYPG: 122.0 (62nd)
Def. TYPG: 236.0 (5th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 29.7% (18th)
Tackles for Loss: 14.0 (T-106th)
Sacks: 9.0 (T-28th)
Interceptions: 1 (T-101st)
Turnover Margin: -1 (T-77th)
Penalties Per Game: 7.0 (T-98th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 54.0 (T-81st)
Keys to the Game
Stop the Run
The Tar Heels run defense has allowed 195.0 yards per game on the ground in the past two games, so this feels like this might be asking a lot, but it is the best way to slow down this Pittsburgh offense. So far this season, the Panthers rushing offense is averaging just 4.4 yards per carry, so this is far from an impossible task but it is important to do if they want to control this game. With how bad this passing offense has been and how much better this Tar Heel secondary has been, making Pittsburgh have to try to move the football through the air should be the goal for this defense.
Win the Trenches
The Tar Heels were able to win this matchup a year ago because they were able to win the line of scrimmage and they will have to do that again on Saturday if they want to win this one as well. Offensively, the team has to get better push on run downs than they did a week ago while recreating the performance that we saw from them in pass protection. Defensively, the team needs to be able to win their one-on-one matchups, especially on the interior, and be able to get pressure off the edge like they did in the first two weeks.
Get Off to Fast Start
This game feels very similar to the game from last week with Minnesota and this was a big part of the reason the Tar Heels won the way they did. Pittsburgh’s offense is not one that is built to play from behind, so a quick start where the Tar Heels are able to get up by two possessions late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter may be too much too overcome. Being efficient offensively early and coming up with a couple of stops out of the gate defensively could set them up for a similar scenario to what they had last weekend, which would be an ideal way for this game to go.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Lejond Cavazos (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Julien Randolph (lower body), Tez Walker (eligibility)
QUEST- Jonathan Adorno (lower body), Gavin Blackwell (upper body), Ryan Coe (lower body), Willie Lampkin (lower body)
PROB- John Copenhaver (upper body)
Location: Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)