High-powered offenses square off as North Carolina faces No. 21 Pitt

NCAA Football

North Carolina and No. 21 Pittsburgh know all about big point totals.

Now they’ll match up against each other for a key game in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

The outcome could have a huge impact on the divisional race.

Pittsburgh (7-2, 4-1 ACC) controls its destiny in the division, although another showdown looms against Virginia. North Carolina (5-4, 3-3) can stay in contention with a victory.

“They’re talented, preseason favorite (in the Coastal Division),” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said of the Tar Heels.

The Tar Heels are fresh off a 58-55 comeback victory against then-No. 9 Wake Forest. So they’ll match up with a ranked team for the third week in a row.

But the Panthers, who appeared in the first College Football Playoff rankings at No. 25, recovered from a loss to Miami with a convincing triumph against Duke.

Pittsburgh rang up 636 yards of total offense for the sixth-highest total in program history. The Panthers have eclipsed the 600-yard mark twice in the same season for the first time.

This matchup will be ripe with storylines involving North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell and Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett.

“It has nothing to do with me and Sam, 1-on-1,” Pickett said. “It’s Pitt vs. North Carolina. It’s going to be a great game, for sure.”

The Panthers have gone above the 50-point mark in four games this season, the most for any Pittsburgh team since 1905. North Carolina has reached 58 or more points three times.

Yet defensive shortcomings are disturbing for Tar Heels coach Mack Brown.

“We have to limit the explosive plays,” Brown said. “We’re getting better and we’re growing. But we have to change some things in that area to get better and do it quickly.”

Howell is North Carolina’s career leader in touchdown passes and passing yardage through 34 games.

The Tar Heels have added a rushing component that has been valuable lately, with Ty Chandler becoming the first Tar Heel to rush for four touchdowns in a game since 1993 when he sliced through Wake Forest’s defense last week.

“He’s showing his quickness and his speed and he’s got more patience now,” Brown said. “I think he’s in tune with the offensive linemen; he has good chemistry with them now.”

North Carolina has gone nearly a month without an ACC game, with an open week and then facing Notre Dame and Wake Forest (an ACC member, but it was a non-league game for those teams).

“It’s such a short week,” Pickett said. “It’s really kind of a mental preparation this week more than physical, especially that it’s late in the season like this.”

Despite all the positive plays against Duke, there were others that created concerns — particularly allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown.

“A lot of ones that we have to clean up for Thursday night,” Narduzzi said.

Pittsburgh had three players out on the offense nursing injuries in the Duke game. Then several other players departed with various ailments.

“It’s obviously concerning,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll have a smart week of practice and keep our guys fresh if we can.”

North Carolina won six straight games in the series until Pittsburgh’s 34-27 victory in 2019. All seven meetings since the Panthers joined the ACC have been decided by seven points or fewer. The divisional foes didn’t meet last year because of a revised pandemic-related schedule.

–Field Level Media

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