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Five things to watch in Pitt-North Carolina

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 6:59 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci hands off the ball to Darrin Hall (22) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Duke in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Pittsburgh won 24-17. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci hands off the ball to Darrin Hall (22) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Duke in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Pittsburgh won 24-17. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

With six tantalizing games involving two ranked teams each coming up Saturday, college football fans first must get through the appetizer Thursday night at Heinz Field: Pitt vs. North Carolina.

Yes, it's losing team vs. losing team, but this is more than cold soup before the main meal. Reputations are at stake.

North Carolina (1-8, 0-6) was ACC Coastal champion only two years ago, so there's pride involved. Pitt (4-5, 2-3) is trying to avoid its first losing regular season since 2007.

A drop from 8-5 to, say, 5-8 would be a dramatic regression in the Pitt program. Sure, it can be rectified next season, but coach Pat Narduzzi doesn't want to wait an entire offseason to do it.

ESPN will be in town to do the national telecast honors, with analysts Booger McFarland and Joey Galloway offering opinions.

Side note: How many remember when Galloway, a 16-year NFL veteran, was signed by the Steelers at the end of 2009 as a replacement for Limas Sweed? You could look it up.

Turn the page for five storylines to ponder while watching the game:

Will Pitt go bowling?

There are two topics Narduzzi prefers not to address when he chats with reporters:

• The state of injured players. He presumably is guarding the players' privacy, but he also doesn't want to give the opponent a glimpse into the starting lineup.

• Pitt's bowl hopes.

“I certainly haven't mentioned it one, absolutely not one time, in here about, ‘Hey, if you do this, you get this,' ” he 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.”

Pardon me, coach, but I'll be darned if you don't sound like James Franklin.

There are no restrictions in this venue to talk bowl hopes, but there isn't much to say. Pitt must win at least two of its final three games (Virginia Tech and Miami are up after North Carolina).

If there aren't enough six-win teams to fill the 76 bowl slots, a handful (at most) of the 5-7 teams could get an exemption. The criteria is a school's Academic Progress Rate, but it's way premature to worry about that now.

Getting healthy

Narduzzi listed three defensive starters as probable this week on the injury report. Still, there are no guarantees that cornerback Avonte Maddox, end Dewayne Hendrix and tackle Keyshon Camp will play wire to wire.

“I don't know if we'll be 100 percent back, but it will be good to get some of those guys back and into the rotation,” he said. “We're about as strong as you would hope to be going into Week 10.”

Narduzzi offered no specifics, but if the young replacements are doing well, there's no sense rushing injured guys, especially Maddox, back onto the field.

Run the ball

Entering this season, Pitt ran for at least 200 yards 12 times in two seasons under Narduzzi, winning 10 of those games. It's happened just twice in 2017, and Pitt is 2-0 (Duke and Youngstown State).

“I'm crossing my fingers and hoping we can run the ball like we have the past couple weeks,” Narduzzi said.

Darrin Hall is averaging 7.4 yards per carry over the past two weeks. It's amazing how much a quarterback's performance improves when he's blessed with a strong running game.

Warning: North Carolina held No. 7 Miami to 1.8 yards per carry two weeks ago.

A secondary to watch

A young group of defensive backs — Maddox is the only senior — has made positive, if intermittent, strides over the past five weeks, allowing an average of only 210.6 passing yards against Rice, N.C. State and Virginia.

Not that it matters, but six of the 12 cornerbacks and safeties on Narduzzi's depth chart are from local high schools. And that's not counting Steel Valley's Paris Ford, who's expected to dive into the mix next season.

Another warning: Pitt has allowed multiple touchdown passes in six of nine games. That needs to change.

Expect a close game

For those interested in Pitt trivia, here's a nugget:

Pitt hasn't defeated North Carolina in Pittsburgh since 1982, when the No. 1 Panthers opened the season against the No. 5 Tar Heels before 54,449 at Three Rivers Stadium.

It was coach Foge Fazio's first game as Jackie Sherrill's replacement, and Pitt won 7-6 despite Dan Marino's four interceptions.

That's one of only three all-time Pitt victories against North Carolina in 11 games.

Since joining the ACC in 2013, Pitt never has defeated the Tar Heels, but the average margin of defeat is only five points.

Narduzzi said Pitt would have won last year if not for Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Trubisky is in Chicago now, so ...

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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