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November 12, 2013

Plenty of Similarities

North Carolina, winners of three straight games for the first time this fall, return to action Saturday for another huge road game at new ACC Coastal Division rival Pittsburgh.

This, of course, is the first-ever matchup on the gridiron between the Tar Heels and Panthers as conference opponents, but the schools have met a total of seven times since 1974, most recently for the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, won 19-17 by Pitt.

For the 4-5 Tar Heels, who improved to 3-3 in ACC play with last Saturday's win at home over Virginia, and the 5-4 Panthers, who are currently 2-3 in league games, this week is obviously huge for postseason implications and conference standings.

UNC can't afford to slip up now after three solid wins that has salvaged a brutal start and given the team some hope for the postseason, while Pitt has endured an up-and-down season that is currently on a considerable up coming off last week's 28-21 victory over Notre Dame.

And when looking at the numbers, it's remarkable how similar the two teams are, not just in record but in common opponents and production.

Pitt has a pair of road losses to common foes of the Tar Heels---Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech---and like UNC, had an inexplicable loss to a non-conference team (a 24-14 loss at Navy), along with a blowout loss in the season opener at home 41-13 to Florida State.

But that loss to the Seminoles is the only one the Panthers have taken in Pittsburgh this season---a fact not lost on the Tar Heels as they prepare to return to the road for its final regular season game away from Kenan Stadium.

"They (Pitt) only have one loss at home," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora in Monday's weekly press conference. "We've got to do a great job with our team preparing for Pitt and what they're doing offensively and defensively. They're well-coached. They're not making mistakes. They're where they're supposed to be. That stands out very much."

"This team just beat Notre Dame. And we're going on the road. Our guys are going to know (this is a quality opponent). They're going to turn on the film, and they're going to know," Fedora continued.

Pitt's offensive numbers aren't exactly staggering, as the Panthers currently rank 13th in the ACC in total offense (346.9 yards per game), compared to UNC's average of 410.9 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the league.

Like the Tar Heels, Pitt has struggled at times to run the ball this fall.

Both teams have played nine games so far this fall, and they have very similar rushing stats. Pitt has a total of 24 more rushing yards than UNC (1,092 to 1,068), and the Panthers are averaging slightly better than the Tar Heels with an average of 3.5 yards per carry, compared to 3.2 yards per play for Carolina, and Pitt is getting 121.3 yards on the ground per game, compared to UNC's 118.7.

One thing Pitt is doing considerably better than the Tar Heels is scoring on the ground, as the Panthers have 14 rushing touchdowns on the season, compared to UNC's nine.

On the flip side, UNC is doing way better throwing the ball this fall than the Panthers, as the Tar Heels head to the Steel City averaging 292.2 yards through the air compared to Pitt's 225.6 passing yards per game.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Tom Savage, who transferred to Pitt from Rutgers, has thrown for 2,022 yards this fall, good for seventh in the ACC currently in total offense (212.7 yards per game), fourth in passing yardage and passing yardage per game (224.7), and third in touchdown passes, with 16, ranking only behind the league's top two quarterbacks, Florida State's Jameis Winston and Clemson's Tajh Boyd, in that particular category.

Savage knows a little bit about UNC, having taken on the Tar Heels when they came to Piscataway to play Rutgers back in 2010. Carolina knocked Savage around that afternoon, briefly forcing him out of the game with a rib injury, and they forced two interceptions as the short-handed Heels won the game, 17-13.

But though Savage has experience against UNC, this is obviously a new scheme he's playing in at Pittsburgh.

And though some of Carolina's seniors on defense, including Kareem Martin, Tre Boston, and Jabari Price, have played against Savage before, this is obviously a different setting and different opponent, but of course they're looking for a similar outcome.

"I don't know how many of them played when he (Savage) played (at Rutgers back in 2010). Everything (with our preparation) will be based on what they (Pittsburgh) are doing now," said Fedora. "I don't know if too many things will carry over."

Pittsburgh is currently seventh in the ACC in total defense, allowing opponents 376 yards per game compared to UNC's 411.2 yards per game, which is 12th in the ACC.

Teams are having success running the ball against Pitt, as they enter the game against UNC allowing 161.1 yards per game on the ground.

And though the Tar Heels are giving up more rushing yards (averaging an allowance of 194 per game), both teams are giving up 4.3 yards per carry by opposing backs, and UNC has given up 15 rushing touchdowns to Pitt's 14 rushing touchdowns as the statistical similarities between these teams continue to add up.

It's going to be critical for Carolina to find a running game against the Panthers to take the pressure off quarterback Marquise Williams and open some things up as it did in the wins over Boston College, N.C. State, and Virginia.

"The running game, by far, would be the No. 1 thing (for us coming into this game)," said Fedora. "And the thing that matters the most. We're running the ball more effectively, and now everything seems to be running better."

One advantage that Pitt does have defensively is 6-0, 275-pound defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a force in the trenches who currently leads the ACC in tackles for loss (19.5) and is second in sacks (9).

Donald will undoubtedly be a load in the middle for UNC's center and guards as they look to create running room for the Tar Heel backs, and he has the respect of the North Carolina coaching staff.

"The Donald kid, he's a phenomenal player. He's got great quickness, really quick get-off. And he's very agile. Very good athlete. And he's got a great motor. Everything you're looking for in a defensive lineman. He has that motor that never quits," said Fedora.

"He's a very good football player, an All-American candidate, and it's well-deserved."

Even with Donald's imposing presence, for the Tar Heels the challenge once again this week is focusing on themselves. And while certainly they want to know what to expect out of their opponents by watching film and learning their tendencies, this week is once again about focusing mostly on North Carolina's own development as a team, and being 1-0 come Saturday afternoon.

"What we've been doing is focusing on ourselves. Let's be 1-0. Let's find an inch. Let's do whatever it takes. And that's what we've been locked in on, no matter who we've been playing each week," said Fedora.

With all the similarities between the Tar Heels and Pirates statistically, as well as nearly-identical records, this would seem to be a very evenly-matched contest.

The fact that Pitt is playing on its home field, therefore, would seem to give them a slight edge, especially considering that the Tar Heels have struggled away from Chapel Hill in losses to the likes of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.

But this seems to be a new day in Chapel Hill, as the Tar Heels have hit their stride and gained some confidence after all the early-season struggles. This team seems to truly believe in itself now, and they're going to need to carry that confidence up to the Steel City.

And if they go up to Pittsburgh and do what they have to do, not only will they be back to .500 at 5-5, but in tremendous position to guarantee themselves an extra game come December, needing just one win with two games left in the regular season.

"You've got to make it happen and you've got to believe it's going to happen," Fedora said. "It's something now that we've put a lot of emphasis on. And it's just believing. If you believe it's going to happen, it's going to happen."




 

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