UNC vs. Pittsburgh: Things to watch

UNC defensive tackle Naz Jones expects to return on Saturday, and he could be a boost for the Tar Heels’ struggling run defense.
UNC defensive tackle Naz Jones expects to return on Saturday, and he could be a boost for the Tar Heels’ struggling run defense. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It's a glorious early-fall Saturday in Chapel Hill, where it won't be long now before North Carolina and Pittsburgh begin a game of monumental importance – in the context of ACC football, that is – at Kenan Stadium.

Three games into the season, and the Tar Heels are “still figuring out who we are,” safety Donnie Miles said earlier this week. They hope they're better than what they've shown, and their game today against Pitt, which is strong where UNC is weak, could go a ways toward identity-building.

After all, it was at this point in the schedule last season – in UNC's first ACC game – that the Tar Heels created the identity they carried through the rest of the season. In that game, UNC rallied from a 21-0 deficit to come back and beat Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels went on to finish 8-0 in the ACC.

Now comes the start of UNC's Coastal Division defense, against a team that's likely to remain in the race for the division championship. And so some things to watch today between the Tar Heels and Panthers:

1. UNC's run defense vs. Pitt's rushing offense.

Do I sound like a broken record yet? I feel like a broken record. The Tar Heels' run defense has not been good. After three games, it ranks in the 100s nationally in both yards per game allowed (226.7), and yards per carry allowed (4.93). And now here comes Pitt, with a rushing offense that ranks 20th nationally, and with James Connor looking as good as he did before he missed last season while receiving cancer treatment. Pitt is likely to run until UNC proves it can effectively stop it – or at least slow it. Can the Tar Heels do that? The good news for UNC is that two starters on the defensive line will be back today. Defensive tackle Naz Jones, who missed last week while recovering from a concussion, expects to start. And defensive end Dajuan Drennon is expected to make his season debut, though he might not start. Either way, the return of those two should help. How much, we'll see.

2. Whether the Tar Heels connect in the deep passing game.

During the first two games of the season, Mitch Trubisky didn't complete a pass longer than 28 yards. Last week during a 56-28 victory against James Madison, Trubisky threw two touchdown passes of at least 71 yards. That bodes well for playing against Pitt, given that a.) UNC has to consistently make plays in the deep passing game and, b.) that those opportunities should be available against the Panthers, who allowed 540 yards passing against Oklahoma State last week. Pitt's defensive priority will be to stop the run and limit the effectiveness of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. The Panthers will be content, until proven otherwise, to force Trubisky to make accurate throws down the field. He did that against James Madison but struggled with accuracy against Georgia in the season-opener. Was last weekend really a turning point for Trubisky and the passing offense? We'll find out.

3. Pitt's jet sweeps, specifically, and … Oh, Canada.

In addition to running backs Connor and Qadree Ollison, the Panthers have found success early in the season with receiver Quadree Henderson running jet sweeps. Those are a familiar part of Matt Canada's game plan. Canada, you'll remember, spent the past three seasons as N.C. State's offensive coordinator. He was dismissed after last season ended and wound up in the same role at Pitt, where is offense, as you'd expect, looks quite familiar to what N.C. State had been doing in recent years. The Wolfpack, by the way, gained more than 300 yards rushing against UNC in each of the past two years, with Canada calling the plays.

4. Pitt running back James Connor.

We already talked about UNC's run defense against Pitt's rushing offense. But Connor deserves his own individual mention. There's not a better story in college football this season than Connor's return to the sport. The knee injury he suffered in Pitt's first game last year ended his season. And then, in December, Connor announced that he'd been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. When Connor made the announcement he expressed little doubt about his future: “I will play football again,” he said. And here he is. Connor, who ran for 220 yards against UNC in 2014, is averaging about 93 rushing yards per game. Just that he's back in uniform is inspiring enough, but that he's picked up about where he left off before his diagnosis is especially extraordinary.

So there you have it. See you at Kenan Stadium.