UNC closes in on quarter mark of season in dire need of win
By PATRICK MASON
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Breaking down a sports season into manageable, bite-sized pieces can help to put a year into perspective. A strong stretch of games can be pointed to as progress and something to build on, while a string of losses can make for a frustrating month.
North Carolina is at one of those checkpoints.
The Tar Heels will arrive at the quarter-of-the-way mark of the 2018 season once Saturday’s home game against Pittsburgh concludes. It’s the ACC opener for both squads, which gives the Tar Heels a chance to start fresh one final time.
“You want to have a pretty good feel for what your team is, the makeup of your team, how your team is going to react,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said during his Wednesday media availability. “You're still going to learn and grow throughout the season as things go. ... You expect your team to start coming together pretty close.”
UNC (0-2) hasn’t been able to find a reliable rushing attack, and has looked overmatched at quarterback. Nathan Elliott, the team’s junior signal caller, has completed just over half of his passes for 356 yards, four interceptions and a touchdown.
The inconsistent offense played a role in a poor first half in the season opener and couldn’t recover in an eventual loss to California. The Tar Heels seemed to go backward the following week in a resounding loss to East Carolina. And with a Week 3 game against Central Florida cancelled due to Hurricane Florence’s arrival, the Tar Heels have had ample time to prepare for a Pitt team that is playing well and looking for its own revival.
The Panthers (2-1) are coming off their first losing season since 2014, but have been tough in three games so far this season. Pitt had a tough Week 2 opponent in No. 13 Penn State that resulted in a 51-6 loss. The Panthers recovered and survived a late push from Georgia State, that included withstanding 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, to hang on for a win.
Kenny Pickett, the Panthers’ sophomore quarterback, has had his own share of miscues, but has been a bright spot for the Pitt offense. He played toward the end of last season, and the added experience has paid off. Pickett has been accurate across three games, completing 41 of his 63 passing attempts (65 percent) for 406 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
His ability to run, highlighted by 80 rushing yards and a score on 22 attempts will be something the Tar Heels will need to account for, especially because mobile quarterbacks have been a problem for the UNC defense over the first two games.
Quarterbacks have run for 90 total yards and two touchdowns. Most of that damage was done by ECU passers, who accounted for 32 yards and both of the scores. Three Cal quarterbacks combined to rush for 58 yards in the season opener.
“He's a kid that looks like he has very good command of the offense, they're running the ball successfully,” Fedora said of Pickett. “He's doing a great job with the play-action passes off that. One thing you know about him is he can beat you with his legs, and he can beat you with his arm. He's a kid that can run and can throw.”
Tar Heels players will donate their meal money allotted for Saturday’s game against Pitt to help provide for those affected by Hurricane Florence.
Each player will donate $15, the per diem they receive for meals for each home and away game, to aid in the recovery of Eastern North Carolina towns and cities that were hit hard by flood waters.
“Our players wanted to do something,” Fedora said. “So we had 100 percent participation in them donating their per diem from this week's game to go to buying supplies, to be able to get the supplies over to the eastern part of the state.”
Former UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick reached out to the team to ask for support in donating food, water and supplies. Reddick, who played on the Tar Heels defense from 2009-12, is from New Bern, which took the brunt of the storm and is dealing with widespread flooding.
“(Reddick’s) coming over to pick up those supplies and take them,” Fedora said. “We also donated our equipment truck so that people in the community could donate water, Gatorade, canned goods and supplies.”
North Carolina has won the past five meetings against Pitt, and nine of 12 overall.
The series has been tight, especially in recent memory. UNC victories in 2016 and 2017 were won by a combined four points, and the largest margin of victory for either team was a 29-10 Tar Heels win in 1998.