The North Carolina Tar Heels will limp north to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers in this week’s Thursday night ACC matchup. Pitt is a double-digit favorite for the first time in an ACC game since making the move from the Big East in 2013. That basically tells you all that you need to know about the state of the Tar Heels, who have lost a laundry list of players to season-ending injuries this season.
The Tar Heels head into this game just 1-8 straight up and 2-7 against the spread. This author had a pretty strong position against UNC coming into the season, with Mitch Trubisky gone and the vast majority of the team’s offensive contributions, but nobody saw it coming in this manner. This has just been a complete disaster from top to bottom. In UNC’s defense, though, they’ve been fighting for the most part, with a reasonable loss to Notre Dame and close home losses to Virginia and Miami. Pitt doesn’t exactly look like a team capable of laying double digits, with a 4-5 straight up record and a 3-4-2 record ATS, depending on the closing numbers that you grade against. Pitt has won two straight, but needs a massive upset along with this win to make a bowl game.
Where do we begin with North Carolina? The quarterback play seems like the best spot. North Carolina has had some extra prep time to get somebody ready for this game. Chazz Surratt has been the preferred option with a 58 percent completion percentage and a 7/3 TD/INT ratio. He should get the nod this week after exiting the game against Miami. Head coach Larry Fedora thought youngster Nathan Elliott “provided a spark” while going 16-of-39 for 173 yards with a touchdown and three picks. He did run 21 times for 79 yards, but Fedora is just grasping at straws with this offense. UNC only has 3.8 yards per carry, but a lot of that has to do with low-percentage runs from the three quarterbacks. Jordon Brown has been fine with 4.4 yards per carry and Michael Carter looks like a game-breaker with six yards per carry. The injury situation is most evident with the wide receiver corps. Brown leads all pass catchers with 24 grabs. No other receiver has more than 20 catches. The Tar Heels have managed less than five yards per play with this patchwork offense. They averaged 7.3 yards per play two years ago with Marquise Williams and 6.6 yards per play last year with Trubisky.
The theme of the weeknight games this week seems to be bad offense and how it negatively affects the defense. The Tar Heels have actually played okay, all things considered. Between injuries and a complete lack of execution on offense, the defense ranks 87th in yards per play allowed at 5.85. It isn’t ideal, obviously, especially for a group that had improved each of the last two seasons, but there is only so much that can be done. After allowing 6.2 yards per play through the first month of the season, the Tar Heels improved to 5.4 yards per play allowed in October. With the extra prep time to plan for a pretty poor Pittsburgh offense, we could see this defense put together another decent effort.
Like North Carolina, questions at the quarterback position have been the biggest offensive issue for Pitt. Max Browne has not been what Pitt fans and what Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi envisioned for a USC transfer. Browne completed 61.1 percent of his throws, but showed a lack of mobility in the pocket and eventually was lost for the season. Ben Dinucci has been awful with a 54.9 percent completion percentage and a 4/4 TD/INT ratio. Even with wins in the last two games over Duke and Virginia, Dinucci is just 18-of-36 with a 1/1 TD/INT ratio. The loss of offensive coordinator Matt Canada has really had a tremendous impact on the Panthers season and not in a good way. The ground game, which averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season, is down to 3.8 yards per carry this season, but that is a little bit misleading. Darrin Hall has 5.9 yards per carry and Quadree Henderson has been very useful in the jet sweep game with 25 carries for 160 yards. Pitt’s average has been dragged down by the 23 sacks that the offensive line has allowed.
One of college football’s greatest mysteries continues to be how bad Pitt’s defense has been on Pat Narduzzi’s watch. This is Narduzzi’s third year at the helm and Pitt has allowed 5.7, 6.0, and now 6.3 yards per play. The Panthers rank 110th in the country with 6.33 yards per play allowed. This year’s group did only have four returning starters, but still. Narduzzi was a defensive wizard at Michigan State, but maybe that says more about Mark Dantonio and the recruiting in East Lansing. ACC foes have 5.8 yards per play against Pitt, which is better than the 7.2 that Youngstown State, Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Rice accumulated, but it is clear that Pitt will go nowhere until the defensive problems are fixed. There was no excuse last year, since the offense was so solid. This season, with a bad offense, the defense has regressed again and something needs to change in the Steel City.
College Football Free Pick: North Carolina Tar Heels +10
As mentioned, this is the first time in an ACC game that Pitt has been favored by double digits. The line probably won’t close there, as most numbers guys will likely have this line a little bit lower. My personal power ratings number is 6, but the Tar Heels’ injuries are hard to account for because there are just so many guys down. Either way, UNC hasn’t quit on the season and has a chance to end strong. The Tar Heels are missing 19 guys to season-ending injuries. While that is brutal in the short-term, it has long-term ramifications with reps for talented underclassmen and those guys are highly motivated to impress going forward. We should get a good effort on extra rest from both teams and Pitt doesn’t have the offense or the QB play to run and hide here.