The Tar Heels know what’s coming Saturday when Pittsburgh comes to Kenan Stadium for a 3:30 kick-off to the ACC season: A formidable running game led by Panther junior tailback James Connor.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Tar Heel Coach Larry Fedora said Monday. “We know they are going to run the football. We know what they believe in, what their philosophy is. They’ve got very good backs, a good line, a solid quarterback and play a physical game. They will run the football.”
The Panthers, 2-1 with wins over Villanova and Penn State and a one-TD loss at Oklahoma State, are rushing for 240 yards a game, and junior tailback James Connor averaging is averaging 94 yards a game. Connor ran for 102 yards against the Tar Heels in Pittsburgh in 2013 and 220 in Chapel Hill in 2014—both of those games win by the Tar Heels by a touchdown or less.
“I remember watching him run up and down the field,” safety Donnie Miles says. “He ran it seemed like for 300 yards one year. It will be a challenge for us.”
The Tar Heel defense was stung Saturday in the home opener against James Madison by allowing touchdowns on the Dukes’ first three possessions. After that, the unit settled down and gave up only one more score—that last one aided by a curious third-down delay-of-game call against the Heels for supposedly barking “disconcerting” signals.
“We just lacked energy for some reason,” Miles says. “As an older guy, it’s my job to pick the guys up, not wait for things to happen. There’s no need to change anything. What we do works fine if we execute properly.”
The offense seemingly clicked like fine a fine Swiss watch, scoring touchdowns on eight-of-eight possessions while the starters were still in, converting seven-of-seven third downs and not losing a turnover. Fedora cited QB Mitch Trubisky’s continued evolution and his pin-point passing—“He has hitting guys deep and they weren’t breaking stride,” Fedora says. “He was on the money.”
But he said this week’s practices and film study will be devoted to fine-tuning Trubisky’s decision-making skills, both pre- and post-snap.
“We left quite a bit left out there, he could have been quite a bit better,” Fedora says. “It’s where the ball goes sometimes. Even though he throws a completion, it’s not necessarily where the ball should have gone, or there were times where we ran the football but should have been throwing it. Those were his decisions. We can sharpen those skills up more.”