Pitt looks to keep momentum going against reeling Tar Heels
PITTSBURGH (AP) — It only took two months, but Pittsburgh seems to have settled on a quarterback. Maybe not coincidentally, a bit of momentum has followed.
While head coach Pat Narduzzi stressed sophomore Ben DiNucci needs to continue to improve, the Panthers (4-5, 2-3 ACC) have also won two straight with DiNucci taking every offensive snap to revive their chances of extending a bowl streak that dates back nearly a decade.
The easiest path includes a victory over struggling North Carolina (1-8, 0-6) on Thursday night. If the Tar Heels snap a six-game losing streak, it means Pitt would have to find a way to beat Virginia Tech and Miami in successive weeks to ensure their season extends beyond the day after Thanksgiving.
Not that Narduzzi wants to talk about it. And he’d prefer if his players decided to skip the subject too.
“I certainly haven’t mentioned it one, absolutely not one time in here about, ‘Hey, if you do this, you get this,’” Narduzzi said. “No. Our goal is to go out every week and win a football game, and I think if you start thinking ahead, you’re going to be in big trouble.”
Something Pitt has avoided in competent if not overpowering victories over Duke and Virginia to breathe some life into a season that flirted with disastrous. DiNucci has completed just 18 passes combined in the wins, but maybe the best news for the Panthers is they haven’t needed him to be great. An improved running game led by Darrin Hall and a rapidly improving defense have given the Panthers a sense of identity they were lacking early on.
That’s not the case for UNC. The Tar Heels are coming off a much-needed bye. The down time has allowed them to heal up a bit from the group that was down down 22 players — 17 for the season — heading into a 24-19 loss to unbeaten Miami on Oct. 28.
“I think they’re all fresher, there’s no doubt about it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I think they’re fresher just because they got some time off. You go nine weeks and then you go four weeks of camp, that’s a long time before you had a bye week and a chance to give those guys a break. And it’s as much mental as it is physical.”
While Pitt seems to have found stability at quarterback, the Tar Heels remain very much in flux. Three different players have taken turns at the wheel, starting with LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris followed by redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. Then, with Harris sidelined by an injury and with Surratt leaving after a hard hit, sophomore Nathan Elliott played much of the way in the 24-19 loss to unbeaten Miami on Oct. 28.
It’s unclear whether Elliott has earned more playing time.
“Nate knows the offense,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “What’s surprising is as few reps as he gets during the week to be able to come and do what he did.”
Some things to look for as the Tar Heels look to improve to 5-0 against the Panthers since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013.
HALL PASS: Pitt’s revolving door at running back seems to have slowed thanks to Hall. The junior backed up a breakout 254-yard performance against the Blue Devils by churning for another 111 more against the Cavaliers.
“When we recruited him, we knew he was talented, and we’re kind of getting what we thought we’d have, and I think he’s got confidence now,” Narduzzi said. “But you know, as I said last week, you’re great on what you do for us lately, and he’s got to go out and have another one and stack another great game on top of it. Another 100-yard plus would be nice.”
TRICK PLAYS: UNC got a spark by using some trick plays with receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams — a former high school quarterback — throwing three passes against Miami. Ratliff-Williams completed two, one to Elliott and another to freshman Beau Corrales for a touchdown. Could UNC break out more against Pitt? “The situation came up where we could run it and the guys executed it,” Fedora said. “It’s not something we just stick in for that week.”
POWER CONFERENCE SKID: UNC’s struggles have left the Tar Heels at 0-6 in the ACC for the first time since 2006. In addition, Sunday marked a year since their last win against a power-conference opponent (Georgia Tech) with the only wins coming against The Citadel and Old Dominion. A loss to Pitt would give the Tar Heels just one more shot at beating an FBS opponent this season, and that would be against rival North Carolina State on Nov. 25, when the surprising Wolfpack could be playing for a prominent bowl bid.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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