North Carolina-Pittsburgh Preview

Pittsburgh and North Carolina have already matched their win totals from a season ago.

But with five games remaining for each, both the 23rd-ranked Panthers and Tar Heels have their eyes on the ACC Championship game.

Thursday night’s meeting at Heinz Field could go a long way in determining who goes there.

This matchup pits two of the Coastal Division’s three remaining unbeatens against each other, with No. 22 Duke also undefeated in league play. The division’s four other teams all have one conference win apiece.

Both are enjoying success not seen in a number of years, with Pitt (6-1, 4-0 ACC) looking to continue its best start since going 9-1 in 2009 en route to a 10-3 finish. The Panthers concluded the year with a 19-17 victory against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on a final-minute field goal.

Despite the strong start, Pittsburgh doesn’t appear to be impressing voters under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers lost their only contest against a currently ranked opponent, falling 27-24 to now-10th ranked Iowa on Sept. 19.

"Outside this room I really don’t care what they say or what they think," Narduzzi said. "It really matters what we think in this room. I think we’re a darn good football team. "

Part of the reason could be Pitt’s failure to blow out its opponents, though the Panthers’ ability to emerge victorious in close games is also a massive improvement. All but one contest has been decided by eight points or fewer. Last year, they were 1-5 in one-possession games and finished 6-7.

"At the end of the day you’ve got to win the game," Narduzzi said. "If it’s a close game, you’ve got to step up and make something happen."

The Panthers drove 89 yards on 19 plays for a 25-yard field goal by Chris Blewitt as time expired for a 23-20 win at Syracuse on Saturday, the fifth time in six games they’ve played on the road. Blewitt also hit a 56-yarder in the previous week’s win at Georgia Tech.

Saturday’s victory marked the first time Pitt came from behind in the fourth quarter to win since that bowl victory over North Carolina. The Panthers had lost 32 consecutive games in which they trailed at any point in the final quarter.

"It’s just Coach Narduzzi," said linebacker Matt Galambos, who leads the team with eight tackles for loss. "He has so much energy all the time, it’s hard not to feel that energy. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the meeting room, practice, lifting, from all the coaches it really trickles down to us."

North Carolina (6-1) is 3-0 in league play for the first time since 1997. The Tar Heels have only finished first in the division once since the ACC split into two in 2005, doing so in 2012 when it tied with Georgia Tech, but was ineligible for the league title game because of NCAA sanctions.

They’ve won six in a row since opening with a 17-13 loss to South Carolina, and all but one of those wins have been by double digits.

North Carolina has also flourished late in games, limiting opponents to 6.4 second-half points per game, and outscored Virginia 13-0 in the final 30 minutes of last Saturday’s 26-13 home win.

"It’s not about the adjustments and the speech and all that," coach Larry Fedora said. "It is really just staying calm and being patient … and letting (the players) adjust to it. Our guys have played really well in the second half."

While the Tar Heels’ 38.4 points per game are tied with Clemson for the most in the conference, their defense is no slouch either, particularly in the passing game. They’re allowing an ACC-low 137.3 passing yards per game and will be focused on neutralizing Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd, who has a league-high 53 receptions for 489 yards and four TDs.

North Carolina had lost 28 of 31 on the road against ranked opponents before a 45-20 win at then-No. 25 Duke on Nov. 20. The Tar Heels have won six of nine all-time meetings with the Panthers, including both in ACC play.