North Carolina’s football season is down to the last quarter. The Tar Heels hold a 4-5 record with three games left and postseason hopes on the line. Opportunity is knocking, and now the question is whether the Tar Heels will answer. North Carolina will travel to Pittsburgh this Thursday for a clash with the Panthers, followed by a home game with Mercer next week. They will wrap up the regular season with a rivalry game against NC State in Raleigh. What happens in the next three weeks will determine whether the team will be bowl-bound or done for the season. One thing is certain: it’s crunch time for North Carolina.
It’s Crunch Time For North Carolina
The Tar Heels have battled it out through nine close games, with several coming down to the last play. Mack Brown‘s first season back in Chapel Hill has been a roller coaster from week to week, but there’s no doubt that the team has improved and the future seems bright.
This season has kept North Carolina fans on the edge of their seats. There were games that should have been won, like the one at Virginia Tech. There were others that could have been lost, but were saved in the final moments, like the Duke game. It has been a fun, wild ride that has made people talk about North Carolina football again.
Now we’re down to crunch time-the final three games-and the Tar Heels have an opportunity to win all three. Pitt is a mystery team. At 6-3, they are solid, and like North Carolina, they’ve had a chance to win every game they’ve played in this season. Barring an monumental upset at home, the Tar Heels should beat Mercer. NC State is in free fall mode, dealing with a multitude of injuries and a restless fan base. However, crazy things can happen on the road against a bitter rival. The Tar Heels need two more wins to become bowl eligible; three wins would seal the deal. There is no room for a letdown at this point.
Spotlight Is On The Offensive Line And Secondary
North Carolina’s secondary was picked apart during the Tar Heels’ recent loss to Virginia. Cavaliers’ quarterback Bryce Perkins put up Heisman-type numbers, passing for 378 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing for 112 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Terrell Jana caught thirteen passes for 146 yards while two more Virginia receivers caught at least six passes. After a solid performance against Duke, the Tar Heels’ defensive unit had no answers for the Perkins-to-Jana routine. Virginia erupted for three touchdowns in the third quarter,and the Tar Heels played catch-up the rest of the game. North Carolina’s secondary has to play better against Pitt, or the defense will be on the field all night.
The Tar Heels’ offensive line has had an up and down season, dealing with multiple injuries along the way. The unit played well against Virginia, and having ten days between games should help. North Carolina running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter both averaged over six yards per carry against Virginia, a direct result of the offensive line’s play. Quarterback Sam Howell had time to make plays, passing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. He connected with Dyami Brown six times, for 202 yards and three touchdowns.
North Carolina’s receivers have the speed to burn opposing defenses; it comes down to Howell having enough time to find them. Pitt has one of the better defenses the Tar Heels will have faced this season. If Howell is running for his life, it’s going to be hard to put points on the board. However, if the offensive line gives him enough time, there is no reason he can’t have another three or four touchdown performance.
Scouting The Pitt Panthers
The Tar Heels have to be careful that they aren’t lulled to sleep by the atmosphere, or lack of one, in Pittsburgh. The Panthers play in an NFL stadium that usually has plenty of empty seats. It’s not the high-energy, loud setup North Carolina has been accustomed to in Chapel Hill this season. Even in a dull environment, the Tar Heels have to keep the energy level high and play like the season is on the line because essentially, it is.
Pitt isn’t a team that will kill you with big plays; they do it with solid defense and game management on offense. Quarterback Kenny Pickett doesn’t have spectacular numbers, but he is fundamentally sound, completing 61 percent of his passes. Pickett has a talented receiver in Maurice Ffrench, who has caught 75 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns. Pickett will test the Tar Heels’ secondary by looking for Ffrench early and often Thursday night.
The Panthers have a committee approach to the ground game, as five different players have had at least 37 carries. A.J. Davis seems to be the leader of the pack, with 89 carries for 407 yards. Davis is also an effective pass-catcher, with seventeen receptions for 209 yards.
On defense, Pitt is talented and stingy. Safety Paris Ford has recorded 56 tackles and three interceptions, while linebacker Phil Campbell has played very well since converting from defensive back. Head coach Pat Narduzzi has quietly won nearly sixty percent of his games at Pitt, and he will have his team ready to play Thursday.
The Time Is Now
Crunch time has arrived for the Tar Heels. If they make a bowl game after finishing 2-9 a year ago, this season may be remembered as one of Mack Brown’s finest hours. North Carolina controls its own destiny at this point. With three games to go, the Tar Heels have to play smart, angry football. If they do, they’ll be packing their bags for a bowl game during the holidays.