Surging Tar Heels face enigmatic Panthers
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst has learned a lot about his program in his two years on the job.
One of the most important? He's still not sure what to expect on a given week.
The Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) have been equal parts explosive and erratic heading into Saturday's game against surging North Carolina (4-5, 3-3). Pitt upset Notre Dame last Saturday, the most significant win of Chryst's brief tenure, one that came on the heels of a three-game losing streak to FBS opponents.
Chryst allows whether beating the Fighting Irish can provide a springboard is "to be determined." He's just tried to remain steady even if his team has been anything but consistent.
"Each week has its own messages," Chryst said. "You can't go from saying this group of guys is going to pack it in, to now all of a sudden, we're going to beat the '85 Bears. That's two extremes right there."
Something the Tar Heels know plenty about. Seemingly out of it after a 1-5 start, North Carolina has ripped off three straight wins by an average of 21 points. Sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams has given the Tar Heels an offensive jolt after taking over for injured Bryn Renner.
The defense, which gave up 55 points to East Carolina and melted down in the final minutes against Miami, has also sprung to life.
"Normally in the past, we played not to mess up," senior cornerback Jabari Price said. "Now we're playing to make plays. And it's really starting to show."
Five things to look for as Pitt tries to become bowl eligible for the sixth straight year and the Tar Heels look to continue their resurgence.
DOMINANT DONALD: Panthers senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald's monster season has opposing coaches pulling out all the stops to try to neutralize the 6-foot, 285-pound force of nature. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora compares Donald, a semifinalist for several major postseason awards, to South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
"He's a one-man wrecking crew," Fedora said. "The guy's all over the place. Paul and his staff have done such a great job with him because they don't just have him lined up at left tackle. He's left tackle, right tackle, he's at the nose, he's played at the right end, at the left end. They move him all over the place."
UNC'S RUNNING GAME: The Tar Heels have yet to find a lead running back and have been rotating guys all season. The Pitt game will mark the latest turn of the carousel. Fedora said Wednesday that freshman T.J. Logan appeared likely to start, though he said Logan, freshman Khris Francis and sophomore Romar Morris are still getting roughly the same number of practice reps. "It all boils down to who's making fewer mistakes and who's making more plays," he said.
DYNAMIC DUO: Pitt senior wide receiver Devin Street and freshman Tyler Boyd have become one of the ACC's best one-two punches. They are the only teammates in the conference to rank in the top 10 in both receiving yards per game and receptions per game.
Street is on his way to owning just about every major career receiving record at Pitt, ones that Boyd could one day smash if he sticks around that long. Boyd already has four 100-yard receiving games this season, matching the school record by a Panther freshman set by Larry Fitzgerald in 2002.
WILLIAMS' JOB: When the Tar Heels lost to Renner to a shoulder injury, Williams has morphed from a quarterback who rotates in to provide a run-pass threat to the full-time starter. He wore Renner's No. 2 last week as a tribute while passing and running for scores to go with a receiving touchdown against Virginia. This will be his second road start — the first came in the Virginia Tech loss when Renner sat out with an ankle injury last month — and another chance for Williams to show what he can do.
QUICK PACE: North Carolina is the only team in the ACC to run an uptempo offense, one that likes to snap the ball every 15-20 seconds. It's a marked contrast for the Panthers, who played Navy and Georgia Tech's run-heavy triple-option during a two-game slide but responded well against Notre Dame's pro-style attack, forcing three Irish turnovers in the process.
"It's still going to come down to stopping the run first," Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House said. "All the runs have the bubbles and three-step passing game off of it, so really they are runs, too."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.