Tar Heels host Panthers as teams chase bowl bids
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina's defense has struggled to stop anybody this season. Now the Tar Heels must figure out a way to slow down one of the nation's top rushers.
Pittsburgh's James Conner is averaging 149.1 yards rushing, good for fourth nationally, heading into Saturday's trip to UNC. And the 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore is facing a defense allowing nearly 220 yards rushing per game, ranking near the bottom of the national statistics.
''You watch him on film and it's scary, because he's done it against everybody they've played and they pride themselves on what they're doing,'' UNC coach Larry Fedora said. ''That's what they're going to hang their hat on, and we have to do everything we can to slow them down.''
The Tar Heels (4-5, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) and the Panthers (4-5, 2-3) enter the game in the same position, each needing two wins in the final three games to become bowl eligible.
Conner has run for 1,342 yards and 17 touchdowns this year while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He's coming off a career-best 263 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries in the double-overtime home loss to Duke on Nov. 1, his second 200-yard performance of the year.
He has run for at least 83 yards in every game this season. He's also been a workhorse, carrying the ball at least 25 times in five games in a relentless style that has punished defenders and worn them down - prompting UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning to call him ''a defensive end playing tailback.''
''I still get treatment on my shoulders and knees, just those are the parts that get sore,'' Conner said. ''Body feels good. After 30 carries it was good to have a bye week, but I still feel good.''
The Tar Heels have allowed five individual 100-yard games this season, according to STATS. The high total was 211 yards by East Carolina's Breon Allen, while two players cracked 100 in the last outing - a 47-20 loss at Miami.
''We're just going to have to buckle down,'' UNC safety Tim Scott said, ''and put our big-boy pads on.''
Here are things to watch in Saturday's Pittsburgh-North Carolina game:
SIZE UP FRONT: Fedora expressed concern about his team's ability to match up with Pitt's size on the offensive line. The Panthers' projected starting linemen all weigh at least 300 pounds.
DEFENSIVE TWEAKS: Pitt's physical offense could force North Carolina to make some defensive changes. The Tar Heels run a 4-2-5 base scheme that relies more on speed than size, though the coaches have talked about using some different alignments to get more size on the field.
PITT'S PASS GAME: The Panthers have been able to move the ball through the air, too. Tyler Boyd ranks second in the ACC at 87.9 yards receiving per game, while quarterback Chad Voytik has thrown 11 TD passes this year, so the Tar Heels can't focus solely on stopping Conner.
UNC'S RUNNING GAME: North Carolina will be thin in the backfield. Freshman tailback Elijah Hood has missed three straight games because of injury, while junior Romar Morris is suspended for violating team rules after a recent DWI arrest. That leaves sophomores T.J. Logan and Khris Francis to carry the load, while receiver Damien Washington and sophomore Charles Brunson could also see carries.
SLOWING UNC'S PACE: North Carolina likes to speed up the tempo with its no-huddle offense. Pitt coach Paul Chryst said his team has tried to prepare for the Tar Heels' pace in practice, though it will be a tough adjustment once the game starts. ''There are different ways you can do it in practice, but I think there's nothing like actually seeing it,'' Chryst said.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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