Carolina opens its home football season one week late on Saturday after the cancellation of the Central Florida game last week because of Hurricane Florence. The Pitt Panthers come to Kenan Stadium for a 12:20 kick-off with the Tar Heels having stumbled to an 0-2 start, with losses at California and East Carolina.
Coach Larry Fedora, his staff and players used the unexpected five-day break of last Wednesday through Sunday to clear their collective mind, get some rest and look inward at the tribulations of losing two games.
“No one would tell you anything different than that the season started as nightmarish as it could have,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis says. “We had high expectations going into it. And in an eight-day period, it turned really bad, really fast. There is a positive to having a bit of a break, though. You catch your breath, recalibrate where you want to take this thing. We haven't started ACC play, so we can still take this team wherever we want.”
Fedora and the Tar Heels are 5-0 against Pitt since the Panthers entered the ACC Coastal Division in 2013, but none of the wins have been easy. Two have been by seven points, the other three by five, three and one points. One year it took two Ryan Switzer punt returns for touchdowns to win. Another year a pass to Bug Howard in the end zone at the end of the game. Last year it was pulling Nathan Elliott off the bench to start at quarterback.
“Pitt is built around running the ball and stopping the run,” Fedora says. “It's always a tough game when we play those guys.”
The Tar Heels' priorities Saturday are to nudge the turnover ledger in their favorite. So far, Carolina has lost four turnovers (all interceptions vs. Cal) and not forced any.
And to turn decent offensive drives like they had in the first half against ECU that ended in field goals into touchdown-scoring possessions.
Carolina played well with the ball against the Pirates until tailback Antonio Williams, playing in his second game as a Tar Heel, was ejected for blocking with his head late in the second quarter. He had 96 yards on six carries and broke several tackles near the line of scrimmage.
Carolina needs a full game like that from Williams. And the Tar Heel hope to soon get sophomore Michael Carter cleared for action after a preseason injury.
“I was angry,” Williams said of his hard running in Greenville. “I wasn't pleased with the opener. I wasn't pleased with my performance. I thought I ran soft. I thought I could have broken more tackles. I thought I could have been more explosive and the next game, I focused on every single one of those things. It's difficult to stop an angry guy, so I just ran angry and that's what I plan on doing the rest of the season.”