PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh has accomplished plenty since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013. The Panthers have beaten Clemson. They’ve taken down Penn State. They’ve won a Coastal Division championship.
One thing they haven’t done is find a way to get by North Carolina. That needs to change on Thursday night if Pitt (6-3, 3-2 ACC) wants to keep alive its hopes of capturing the Coastal for the second straight year. Pitt is 0-6 against the Tar Heels (4-5, 3-3).
“We’re going to have to get after them boys,” defensive lineman Patrick Jones II said. “We can’t keep losing to them if we want to accomplish our dreams … This is a step we need to get over right here, beating North Carolina.”
The Tar Heels are the only Coastal opponent the Panthers have yet to take down. North Carolina has gone just 2-14 in the ACC the previous two seasons, with both wins coming against Pitt. The return of Mack Brown has brought the Tar Heels back to respectability, though the margin for error remains thin.
Eight of North Carolina’s nine games have been decided by seven or fewer points, with the outcome for all eight determined in the final 80 seconds. The list includes a 21-20 loss to reigning national champion Clemson on Sept. 28. In their past two games, the Tar Heels came up with a goal-line interception to hold off rival Duke 20-17, then lost 38-31 to Virginia when their final drive stalled across midfield with a minute left.
“I’m encouraged we keep getting better,” Brown said. “I’m encouraged they fight every week and we haven’t had a down game. They’ve been very competitive and they’ve tried really hard. … All those things are real positive. We’ve still got to make the plays to win the game at the end.”
The Panthers aren’t much different. All six of Pitt’s victories and two of their three losses have come by 10 points or fewer. The Panthers have grown comfortable playing in tight situations. Good thing, because it figures to happen again against the Tar Heels.
Asked if both teams could save a lot of time by just choosing to start with the score tied and five minutes left on the clock, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett laughed.
“We want to go out there and take care of business,” Pickett said. “But judging by the way the season’s going, we’re expecting a dogfight every game. We’ll be ready for either.”
UNC quarterback Sam Howell has been terrific as a true freshman, both in giving the Tar Heels a chance to win now and to build for the future of Brown’s program revamp. Howell flipped his commitment from Florida State shortly after Brown was hired and has thrown 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
For North Carolina to continue its mastery of the Panthers, Howell will have to deliver against a defense that leads the ACC and ranks second nationally in sacks. Now with nine games under his belt, Pitt no longer considers Howell a freshman.
“He’s like an NFL quarterback the way he can step up if somebody is rushing from one of his sides, he can step up or make you miss, so we’ve got to do a good job of finishing plays if we can sack him and stuff like that,” defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman said. “Not just put pressure on him but finish the plays.”
ONLY GAME IN TOWN?
When the ACC schedule came out, it looked like an opportunity for the new-look Tar Heels and the defending Coastal Division champion Panthers to provide a showcase for the league in the national spotlight. Now, it’s not even the only game being played Thursday night by a notable Pittsburgh football team. At about the time Pitt and North Carolina kick off, the NFL’s Steelers will be doing the same up the road in Cleveland. Narduzzi isn’t exactly a fan of the setup.
“You look at it and go, ‘It’s not good for the ACC playing on the same night as an NFL franchise in your same city,’” Narduzzi said. “It’d be different if the Cowboys were playing, you know, the Seattle Seahawks or something, or the New England Patriots. … So I think there needs to be, especially with some NFL franchises and college football and conferences, they have to start and look and say, ‘You know, what makes sense for the city of Pittsburgh?’ and that obviously wasn’t done.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.