Four Storylines to Watch as North Carolina Meets Pittsburgh

Brant Wilkerson-New

Technically, North Carolina remains alive as to win the Coastal Division based on tiebreakers, but any chance to make that longshot possibility become a reality would require a win at Pittsburgh (8 p.m., ESPN) on Thursday night.

Here are four storylines to watch as the Tar Heels meet the Panthers at Heinz Field:

Feelin’ Fresh

Every football team in America could use a week off in November, but none more than an already-thin Carolina roster decimated by injuries this season.

A break from the grind was the biggest takeaway from the open date for Mack Brown.

“Young guys got a lot of fundamental work, they got a lot of physical work,” he said. “Older guys got some rest.”

Running backs went completely no-contact while veterans like Aaron Crawford got a much-needed rest after being forced to be on the field more than Brown would like this season. Looking back on the Virginia Tech game, he said having the fifth-year defensive tackle on the field for more than 90 plays was simply too much to ask.

“In some cases, I think because we haven’t had depth — and it’s our fault we haven’t developed enough depth — is that we wear down during games, so we’re really trying hard now to put more guys in the game,” he said.

Howell Haymakers

Pitt ranks ninth nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 280 yards, and the Panthers have been particularly stingy against the run, giving up an average of 85.

There’s a little more opportunity for success against Pitt’s pass defense — 27 nationally — but Pat Narduzzi’s 4-3 over/quarters scheme is still a challenge for opposing offenses.

With the Panthers lining up in press coverage on the outside and safeties dedicated to stopping the run first, Sam Howell is going to have every opportunity for a big night — if he can stay upright, that is.

“I think that’s the biggest thing: we’ve got to stay balanced enough to be able to protect,” Brown said. “We’ve got to stay ahead of the chains, then we’ve got to hit some deep balls.”

Carolina is 14 nationally with 20 passing plays of more than 30 yards and 8 with 13 completions for more than 40 yards.

If there’s one place the Panthers have been vulnerable, it’s been on the deep ball, ranking 76 with 10 passes of 30 or more yards allowed and 110 with 10 completions of more than 40 yards allowed.

The challenge is Howell getting those throws off, as the Panthers have racked up 40 sacks in nine games, ranking third nationally.

For the Seniors

The Coastal Division title is a longshot, but reaching six wins and playing in a bowl game is a big deal for the Tar Heels.

Nick Polino arrived at Carolina for the run to the Coastal Division title run in 2015 and has lived through the struggles of the past two seasons.

It’s been refreshing to help breathe life back into the program, and now, it’s important to finish with something tangible.

“It’s been really fun to be able to do it with the guys we came in with, to be the senior class that’s been able to start back on the trend where we want to be,” he said. “We’ve still got to finish strong.”

Winning for Polino and the other veterans that have endured the losses and coaching change has been a point of emphasis for Brown, who said “everything” over these next three weeks is for them.

Brown relayed a story from Sunday’s practice where he drove home that point.

“We had a couple of freshmen that didn’t practice well yesterday and I called them out in front of the team and I said, ‘You’re going to be a senior one day and you’re going to ask the rest of the guys to play for you because you want your senior year to be special and you’re going to remember it the rest of your life,’” he said. ‘’And here you are laying down and being lazy and not creating an edge for practice. That’s just inexcusable and unfair.’”

Defensive Doctrine

To put it mildly, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman wasn’t happy with his group’s last outing.

“Virginia was the first time all season I felt like that we didn't stick to kind of what we talk about, what we believe in,” he said. “I didn't think our energy was great at times, I didn’t think our effort was great at times. I think those are non-negotiables.”

Sometimes, a defense gets beat; that’s part of the game, but how the 65-yard touchdown run transpired for Bryce Perkins left Bateman furious on the sideline. The Tar Heels responded with better effort after that, and since then, he’s made it a point through the open week.

Brown had a simple formula for understanding whether that message is received vs. Pitt.

“Stop the run, and force turnovers,” he said. “That’s how you play defense. Against Virginia, we really didn’t do either one of them, and if you don’t stop the run, the game is over.”