Through North Carolina's first two games, ones that included a defeat against Georgia and a victory at Illinois, the long, momentum-changing passing plays that are an integral part of the Tar Heels' offense had gone missing.
During those two games, the Tar Heels didn't complete a pass of more than 28 yards. Mack Hollins, the senior receiver who led the nation in yards per catch last season, had fourreceptions – none for more than 20 yards. Ryan Switzer's longest catch of the season had gone for 23 yards.
Mitch Trubisky, the junior quarterback, had completed 67.1 percent of his passes – but he had yet to connect on a long, deep pass, the kind that his predecessor, Marquise Williams, so often used with success a season ago. Trubisky changed that last Saturday against James Madison.
And just in time, given that UNC shouldn't lack for opportunities in the deep passing game against Pittsburgh on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. The Panthers will arrive here with one of the worst pass defenses in the country, according to the early-season statistics.
Pitt, meanwhile, is expected to run well against the Tar Heels' defense. The Panthers, on defense, are expected to contain UNC's running game. If there's a mismatch in UNC's favor, though, it's in the deep passing game against the Panthers' beleaguered secondary.
The Tar Heels were always going to try to take advantage of such an opportunity. After what they did last weekend against James Madison, though, it appears more likely that UNC is in a position to do so. Because, finally, three games into the season, Trubisky connected on some of those long throws.
There was the 75-yard touchdown pass to Switzer in the first quarter. That one came off of a flea-flicker, with Switzer running free down the middle. And then, not too long after that, there was the 71-yard touchdown pass to Hollins, who simply outran the defense and was wide open.
Both times, Trubisky's throws were on target. Neither Switzer nor Hollins had to alter their routes, or make adjustments to try to catch the pass. They simply had to keep running and then make the catch when it was time.
“If you looked at it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said later, “there weren't anybody breaking stride on any of those passes, so he was on the money.”
The passing game's success against James Madison comes with a caveat: The Dukes, while competitive on offense, were not competitive on defense. They lacked the talent, and the depth, to match up with UNC, which in some ways treated the Dukes as if they were a scrimmage opponent.
The point of scrimmages is to improve, though, and the Tar Heels’ passing offense did last Saturday. Now the task becomes more challenging against Pitt, though the Panthers' recent history – and defensive style – suggests Trubisky will have plenty of opportunities to throw long.
UNC is preparing to see a lot of blitzes on Saturday. Elijah Hood, the junior running back, said earlier this week that last season the Panthers “threw the kitchen sink at us,” and that at times the Tar Heels weren't quite sure where the pressure might be coming from. They adapted, regardless.
Williams capitalized of favorable match-ups in the secondary and exploited the Panthers, who tried, unsucessfully in moments, to defend UNC’s receivers with single coverage. Williams threw one 71-yard touchdown pass to Switzer, and another, for 32 yards, to Hollins.
Overall, the Tar Heels averaged 11.7 yards per pass attempt – their second-highest single-game average of the season, only behind the passing bonanza that was the victory against Duke the next week. Meanwhile, the Panthers last week in a loss at Oklahoma State allowed 11.7 yards per attempt against the Cowboys, who passed for 540 yards.
UNC on Saturday will see a quarters defense, which is the base scheme that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is known for. (Here he is, during his time as defensive coordinator at Michigan State, explaining his defense.) The Tar Heels, in moments, saw the same approach from James Madison last weekend.
“They’re probably going to mix it up,” Trubisky said of Pitt. “But I think this offense is really built as a strength to go against quarters defense. And with the playmakers we have on the outside to try to get behind that.”
Trubisky said he was confident that “it was just a matter of time” before he began connecting on those long pass attempts. That time came last weekend against an inferior, lower-division defense that didn't offer UNC many challenges.
Now the question is whether Trubisky and the Tar Heels can carry over their success on Saturday in their first ACC game. Given the Panthers' recent pass defense struggles, and their coverage scheme, UNC isn’t likely to lack for chances.