UNC vs. Pittsburgh: Ask a writer who covers the Panthers

And we're back with the wildly-popular “ask a writer who covers the opposing team” segment. This week that team is Pittsburgh, which travels to Kenan Stadium to play against North Carolina on Saturday.

And that writer is Jenn Menendez, who covers Pitt for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She was kind enough to answer a few Pitt-related questions in advance of a monumentally-important game in the Coastal Division race.

Let's get to it.

Andrew Carter: James Connor is probably the best story in college football this season. As amazing as it is, it seems like he's just as good now as he was before he missed last season while going through treatment for cancer. Is that a fair assessment, and as a player how is he different, if at all, from before?

Jenn Menendez: James Conner is quite a person, and quite a player. That said, I think he is very close to being the player he was in 2014, as the last remnants of rust seem to shake off his back. Further, I would say even his not-quite-100 percent would be an enviable level for a lot of college running backs. Long story short, he has – and probably will – continue to get better as each game passes this season.

AC: Through three games Pitt has allowed an average of 2.4 yards per rush, but not many teams are giving up as many yards per pass attempt as the Panthers (who are allowing 8.8 yards per attempt). What's with the discrepancy between Pitt's excellent run defense and porous pass defense?

JM: Pitt tries to stop the run first and foremost and sometimes that leaves them vulnerable in the secondary. They got burned a few times on big pass plays against Penn State, but to a manageable level. Different story against Oklahoma State which is what is skewing those numbers so badly. The Cowboys exploited every mismatch and miscommunication to amass 540 passing yards on the way to a win.

AC: We've heard a lot down here this week of how UNC plans to deal with Pitt's jet sweeps with Quadree Henderson. How much of an integral part of the Panthers' offense is the jet sweep and what makes Henderson so effective in that role?

JM: Henderson has been the team's most dynamic playmaker in three games so far this season, for his receiving ability, return game, and executing on those jet sweeps that appeared to catch Penn State off guard. Oklahoma State picked it up a little bit better, but he is fast in the open field and a smart player.

AC: UNC's run defense hasn't been good early in the season. Is Pitt's game plan basically to run and run and run some more … and run even then, after it has run so much that the very idea of running seems impossible? In other words: How much is Pitt savoring the chance to go against this UNC defense?

JM: Pitt would be a run-first team if they lined up against the Steelers. That is their identity, that is where they are strong, that is where they butter their bread. The offensive line excels here, and from Conner to a handful of other running backs, this is what Pitt wants to do, will try to do, will mostly succeed doing.

AC: Conversely, UNC has to be looking forward to going against Pitt's pass defense. How much of a concern is the Tar Heels' passing game and how do you think Pitt goes about limiting UNC's affinity for the big play with the long pass?

JM: I think it's a big concern, and could determine the outcome of this game. We the media don't get to see much practice at all, (and I personally didn't see any this week) but coach Pat Narduzzi said there was significant attention paid to the pass defense, from player fundamentals, to communication. This is a dimension of the game to pay close attention to.

So there you have it. Thanks to Jenn for her time, and insights.