Dave Wannstedt brings a tough and aggressive football team from Pittsburgh down to Charlotte to play North Carolina the day after Christmas. Pitt finished tied for second in the Big East standings this fall with a 5-2 mark---losing only in late-season heartbreakers to West Virginia (19-16) and Cincinnati (45-44) that kept the Panthers out of the BCS.
"They're a physical football team. Any team up North, that's just their style of play. They like to be big and muscle things around," said UNC cornerback Kendric Burney of the Panthers.
As the Tar Heels have been preparing for Pitt over the past couple of weeks, some of UNC's 'scout team' players have been simulating the numbers of prominent players on the Panther offense, which is ranked No. 1 in the Big East in rushing (184.6 ypg) and No. 3 in passing (215.3 ypg).
In particular, UNC has been simulating the No. 11 of Panther's fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull, who ranks second in the Big East in passing yards per game (205.8) and second in passing efficiency (152.5), and the No. 28 of phenom freshman running back Dion Lewis, who led the league and finished third in the country with 1,640 rushing yards.
"Every single week we try to find somebody---we do it with wide receivers, running backs, on defense with potential pass rushers and 'nickel' blitzers---to try to help the quarterback or the defensive guys who are the people (for opposing teams)," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "The hardest thing is trying to match somebody up schematically with the athletic ability of what that person is."
Stull is the Big East's first-team All-Conference quarterback this fall after a regular season in which he completed 192 of 297 passes (64.6 percent) for 2,470 yards and 21 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.
"Stull has done a great job," Davis added. "He has really had an outstanding year for them."
"When I watch their film it's a lot like our offense," said defensive tackle Marvin Austin of Pitt. "They want to run the ball, play-action pass, and take a couple of shots, and basically go out there and manage the game and play good defense, and that's what they've been doing all year."
Lewis has been named National Freshman of the Year by several outlets, including The Sporting News, CBSSports.com, and CollegeFootballNews.com, and he and fellow freshman running back Ray Graham have combined for an impressive 1,949 yards this fall.
"The running backs, both of those guys, are electrifying," said Davis of Lewis and Graham. "They are fast and explosive. I mean, they have a good chance to be as dynamic of running backs as we've played this entire season."
The 5-8 Lewis and the 5-9 Graham are often difficult targets to locate behind Pitt's large, veteran offensive line, which features three seniors and a fourth-year junior.
For the Tar Heel defenders it will be critical to play their gaps and avoid the temptation to over-pursue running plays, which can lead to seams opening up on misdirection plays such as 'counters' and 'draws.'
"Most of the smaller guys are pretty fast and they are low to the ground, so when they get behind those big offensive linemen, you can't see them and then you try to play your block, and that's why you don't want to get your eyes into the backfield too much. You want to defeat your block and then get off and make a play," said Austin.
"Those guys (Pitt's running backs) are so small, like (West Virginia's) Noel Devine from last year. You can't see them, and the next thing you know he just pops out of nowhere, and by that time a guy like me, I'm only but so fast---I can't run them down," he added. "We've got to make sure we go and build a wall against them, and make them run into the back of those offensive linemen and try to make them run sideline to sideline so our linebackers can run downhill and make plays."
Two ironic twists to this matchup for UNC is the fact that Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti, was Carolina's previous coordinator before the arrival of Coach Davis and his successor, John Shoop, and Pitt's offensive line coach, Tony Wise, is a longtime friend of Coach Davis who, like Wannstedt, worked with Davis in Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys.
While Pitt will be looking to establish the run and take control of the game on the ground on Saturday, they also have the ability to make plays through the air with several talented playmakers among their receivers, especially sophomore Jonathan Baldwin, who finished second in the Big East this season in receiving yards (1,080) and fourth in receptions (54).
"They run the ball a heck of a lot. They run the ball and they actually have some downfield threats. They throw the ball down the field a lot, and they play-action pass," said Austin. "As I said, we've definitely got a challenge ahead of us, and defensively, we've got to stay in our gaps, got to play disciplined and go out there and be physical."
The 6-5, 225-pound Baldwin could prove to be a genuine concern from the standpoint of sheer size for North Carolina's smaller cornerbacks.
"In a 6-5, 225-pounder running like he (Baldwin) does, he's everything a receiver needs to be," said Burney. "Maybe he doesn't get the recognition, but looking at him on tape, he's just as good as the other receivers I've guarded, so I'm looking forward to a good challenge with him."
While Pitt's offense is certainly something to respect for North Carolina's outstanding defense, the Panthers' defensive unit is far from shabby either.
Statistically, Pitt is among the elite teams in the Big East defensively as well, ranking second in the league in scoring defense (20.0 ppg), total defense (323.9 ypg), and rushing defense (108.4 ypg).
Most impressive, however, is the fact that Pitt's defense leads the country in sacks, with 44.
Panther defensive end Greg Romeus leads the way with eight quarterback takedowns, while former UNC recruiting target, defensive tackle Myles Caragein, joins teammate Adam Gunn, Pitt's starting middle linebacker, to tie for second on the team with five sacks.
Quite simply, this is an area that could make or break the game for Carolina offensively.
"Clearly Pitt's defense is extremely good. They're big and physical in the defensive line. They lead the nation in sacks," said Coach Davis. "They can put the pressure on the quarterback, and subsequently the percentage of completions against them is not very good. You don't get an awful lot of big plays because you don't get a chance to hang onto the ball for very long."
It will be essential for UNC's offensive front five, along with the Tar Heel running backs, to provide ample protection for quarterback T.J. Yates as he attempts to pick out holes in the Pittsburgh secondary.
"It (Pitt's sack totals) is something that jumps out at you when you hear about them, but I'm very confident," said Yates.
"They're definitely a very athletic front four and they like to get after the quarterback," said offensive tackle Kyle Jolly, who will be playing his final UNC game on Saturday.
"It will be tough (to block them)," said running back Ryan Houston. "I feel I'm a great pass blocker, but I feel like we've got to run the ball and try to make it balanced and make them play some pass defense, so we can get some runs and get T.J. some time (to throw)."
"Our offensive line has been playing very, very well coming into the last part of the season," added Yates. "We've gotten everybody back healthy and everybody working together, so I'm very confident going into this game that the offensive line will protect well."
"I think we definitely have (made strides offensively), especially if you look at the offense from the first half of the season compared to the second half. I feel like we've done just a lot better as an entire offense, really," added Jolly.
While clearly Pitt is going to bring a tremendous challenge to the Tar Heels, UNC figures to have a considerable advantage in terms of the crowd's favoritism, and they are also familiar with this particular bowl game, having played in it a year ago.
The Tar Heels rose to the occasion in October and November to beat ranked ACC rivals Virginia Tech and Miami, and they're now looking to get another win over a ranked opponent while sending the seniors out in style with one last victory.
"We've got our work cut out for us, but we're definitely looking forward to the show. It should be a good matchup," said Burney.