CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina improved enough defensively last season to edge Pittsburgh on the way to winning an Atlantic Coast Conference division championship.
Roughly a year later, it’s unclear if the Tar Heels are capable of doing it again.
The teams that finished 1-2 atop the Coastal Division meet in their league openers Saturday, with the Tar Heels facing the familiar challenge of trying to hold up physically against the Panthers’ pounding ground game. But unlike last year — when the Tar Heels’ defense went from awful to adequate — that unit doesn’t enter the game with many positives.
They’re coming off a performance coordinator Gene Chizik described as “soft.”
UNC (2-1) ranks 106th nationally against the run (226.7) and allows 28 points per game. That includes last weekend’s 56-28 win against James Madison in which the Championship Subdivision team scored touchdowns on its first three drives, while both Chizik and head coach Larry Fedora later noted they didn’t remember the Tar Heels making a good defensive play until the second quarter.
Pitt (2-1) is ranked 21st nationally in rushing (239 yards per game), with tailback James Conner cracking the 100-yard mark in each of the past two games. Two years ago, Pitt ran for 305 yards at UNC — Conner had 220 yards and four touchdowns — but the Tar Heels held Pitt to 153 in last year’s 26-19 road win while Conner was out recovering from a knee injury and being treated for lymphoma.
Pitt has its own defensive concerns after allowing 640 yards in a loss at Oklahoma State.
“After a loss last week, I think we respond well to adversity,” Panthers defensive end Ejuan Price said, “and we’re not thinking so much about redemption but about getting on the track.”
Some other things to know about Saturday’s Pittsburgh-North Carolina matchup:
TRUBISKY’S ROLL: UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky enters with momentum. He completed 24 of 27 passes for a career-high 432 yards last week. That included setting a single-game program record by completing his last 18 passes. He enters this one with a program-record 156 throws without an interception. And he’s coming off a game when he finally connected on the deep ball.
PITT’S PASS DEFENSE: The Panthers were especially vulnerable to the pass last week, surrendering 541 yards through the air — including a national-best 296 yards receiving by James Washington. So how will Pitt handle UNC’s attack if Trubisky is connecting with deep threat Mack Hollins or receiver Ryan Switzer? “Fundamentally you have to play with good technique,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “That’s what we try to play at every position on the field. You better play good technique when you’re playing against great wide receivers.”
PETERMAN PROGRESSING: Narduzzi is quick to defend quarterback Nate Peterman, who passed for a season-high 237 yards against Oklahoma State with a touchdown and an interception while completing less than 50 percent of his passes (14 of 29). Narduzzi said Peterman has played “above average the last two weeks,” adding: “If he continues to do that, we will be fine.”
DEFENSIVE HEALTH: UNC has been shorthanded on the defensive line, but could be close to full strength. Two-year starter Dajaun Drennon practiced fully this week after missing the first three games with an undisclosed injury and could play, while junior tackle Naz Jones is listed atop the depth chart after missing last week with an apparent concussion.
FRIENDLY RIVALS: Conner and Switzer have struck up a friendship over the years, with Switzer even paying tribute to Conner last fall after the 2014 ACC player was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma by writing #ConnerStrong on his cleats before the 2015 ACC title game.
That friendship takes a breather as Conner and the Panthers try to snap a three-game series skid. “He’s one of my better friends,” Conner said of Switzer, “but I know he wants to take some kicks back on us.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.