Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report
Offense: Simply put, the Tar Heel offensive engine is humming right now. And a lot of that has to do with a rising youth movement spearheaded by young playmakers like running back T.J. Logan, who will get the start on Saturday, tailback Khris Francis, and receiver Bug Howard. With these emergences, Carolina has a solid stable of options for sophomore Marquise Williams to distribute the ball to. Williams is really starting to grow comfortable as the man at the helm of the offense. And he adds much needed wrinkles to Offensive Coordinator Blake Anderson’s unit. Will he take it and run? Will he sling it down the field? He is a perfect fit for the Fedora-style warp-speed philosophy. Through the air, UNC is averaging 292.2 yards per game, 22nd best in the nation. And boy, we haven’t even mentioned that man named Eric Ebron. He leads the team in receiving yards as a tight end. He’s a game-changer. Look out for him on NFL Sundays in the very near future! So, it appears the Tar Heel offense will be clicking on all cylinders as it rolls into Pittsburgh this weekend.
The Pittsburgh Panthers are led by veteran quarterback Tom Savage. He’s thrown 16 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions this season while amassing 2022 passing yards. Will he be able to take care of the football under pressure? That is the key. He’s a capable passer, but has proven he can be rattled under extreme pressure. The Panthers also have a strong running back tandem in Isaac Bennett and James Conner. They can really ground and pound the ball down opposing team’s throats. Managing the clock will be imperative for Pitt on Saturday, as they will want to keep the explosive Carolina offense off the field. But there can be no doubt as to who the biggest playmaker is on the Panther offense. That recognition goes to electric receiver Tyler Boyd. Just a freshman, Boyd has already tallied six touchdowns and 729 yards this year. But against some of the better defenses they’ve faced, Pittsburgh has struggled to put together scoring drives. It’s hard to get a good read on their true identity. We’ll see soon enough.
Defense: The Tar Heels have seemingly found the formula for success on this side of the ball. And a lot of this improvement has to be credited to Coach Vic Koenning’s relentless drive in practice and ability to adapt. He says the Tar Heels have been simplifying everything and focusing all their energies on playing with passion and taking down the man in front of them. It appears to be paying off. They’re playing faster by avoiding the dreaded ‘paralysis by analysis’. The Carolina defense held the Virginia Cavaliers to a mere 14 points last time out and kept BostonCollege to a measly 10 of their own the week before. If you had to pick out one special player for UNC on defense, you would have to go with senior defensive end Kareem Martin. This guy has stepped up tremendously. Zero Dark Thursday didn’t turn the lights out on Martin. It’s as if the light bulb went off and boom! Here he is. He’s been causing havoc in the back field ever since and raising the level of the entire defense with him. Martin is an outstanding leader to many of the under-classmen on the Tar Heel roster. One such freshman is cornerback Dominique Green. Green is starting to anticipate the ball coming his way like a veteran. He flies around the field like a cat, as evidenced by his “pick six” that closed the door on the UVA contest. The Tar Heel secondary will need to have a superb game to contain Pitt sensation Tyler Boyd. However, if Carolina continues to convert one-on-one tackles, avoid a bevy of missed assignments, and play with the overall heart and determination they’ve displayed in the second half of the 2013 campaign, a ‘W’ may very well become a distinct possibility for the Tar Heels on Saturday.
As for the Panthers, how will they possibly be able to contain the plethora of Tar Heel offensive weapons? Maybe better than you think. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is an absolute beast. Expect him to exert a ton of pressure in the Carolina backfield and provide a stern test to the youth on the UNC front line. On the other hand, the Pitt secondary can be susceptible to big plays through the air. FloridaState and Duke lit them up earlier in the season. How will they hold up this weekend?
EDGE: DEAD EVEN
Intangibles: This one could be seen both ways I suppose. But it’s a away game for the Tar Heels. It will be tough any way you slice it. ACC road wins are precious. Carolina is much more comfortable inside the cozy confines of Kenan Stadium. What’s more, a raucous crowd should be expected inside Heinz Field for this 12:30 encounter. But the Tar Heels have appeared to be supremely focused of late. The “1-0 each week” mantra has consumed their inner beings. If UNC can continue to tap into their emotions and bum a few Red Bulls off of Coach Fedora Saturday, things should be looking up. The senior leadership is there. Will the road warriors return a la NC State?
On the other hand, Pitt is riding high off an upset victory over No. 23 Notre Dame at home last weekend. But Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team will need to guard against a letdown. Being at home in front of their spirited fans should help the cause though. Expect the Panthers to come out firing early, trying to get an early lead against the surging Tar Heels. The home field advantage aspect of this category cannot be downplayed enough.
EDGE: DEAD EVEN
This one should be an extremely hard-hitting, competitive contest. Both teams sense the pivotal nature of the contest and will be fully expecting to emerge with a win when the dust settles. We can expect a back and forth affair, but I expect Carolina to get that game-changing special teams play that puts them over the top.
QUICK PICK: Tar Heels 31, Panthers 30