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Updated Friday, October 30
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – North Carolina and Pitt are scheduled to meet for the first time in an ESPN Thursday Night game, but this week’s key Coastal Division game will actually mark the second time the programs have met on national television on a Thursday evening stage.
The first occasion came on Sept. 9, 1982, in the season opener at Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium. CBS and a sold-out crowd of nearly 55,000 were on hand for the battle between the top-ranked Panthers and fifth-ranked Tar Heels. The offensive battle between Heisman Trophy candidates Dan Marino (Pitt) and Kelvin Bryant (UNC) failed to materialize, but Marino did throw the game’s lone touchdown pass as the Panthers clipped the Tar Heels 7-6 in a defensive battle.
The teams have met five times since – including ACC games each of the previous two years and a bowl game six years ago – but this year’s game is arguably the most intriguing and most important since that matchup of top-five programs a little over 33 years ago.
Both teams enter Thursday night’s meeting with 6-1 overall records. Pitt is ranked as high as No. 23 nationally, while UNC is on the threshold of cracking both major polls. More importantly, each team is unbeaten thus far in ACC play as the stretch run for the Coastal Division title begins. The Panthers sit atop the Coastal standings at 4-0, while the Tar Heels and Duke share second place at 3-0.
If series history is an indication, expect a close one. Six of the nine games have been decided by single digits, including each of the last four contests. UNC, which holds a 6-3 edge over the Panthers, won 40-35 in Chapel Hill last year and 34-27 on its previous visit to Heinz Field in 2013.
Prior to Pitt’s joining the ACC, the most recent meeting between the teams took place at the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, where a field goal in the final minute lifted the Panthers to a 19-17 victory. Pitt’s three series wins have come by a total of seven points.
That fits the modus operandi of this year’s Panther squad, which has seen six of its seven games (including five wins) under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi decided by one possession. That includes wins over Georgia Tech and Syracuse the past two weekends that were both decided on field goals by placekicker Chris Blewitt. Pitt’s lone loss came in Week 3 on a last-second 57-yard field goal at still unbeaten Iowa.
Narduzzi – who earned his coaching stripes as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State and elsewhere – was asked if winning the close ones was something he emphasized when taking the head coaching reins at Pitt.
“No, not really,” Narduzzi said. “It’s what we’ve always done. If you look back through my history, and the last 11 years, you win championships with defense. Normally if you’re winning it with defense it’s going to be a close game, if you don’t outscore them a whole bunch. It doesn’t matter what the score is. At the end of the day you have to win the game. If it’s a close game you have to step up and make something happen.
“Our offense did it last weekend and our defense did it this past couple (weekends). But you have to win close games, that’s the name of the game. You get 60 minutes, that’s no secret. You just have to do it and have that attitude to win football games.”
North Carolina will be making just its second true road trip of the season and will be playing on an NFL field for the second time this year. UNC head coach Larry Fedora, whose team won a wild 34-27 at Heinz Field two seasons ago, doesn’t see either factoring in on Thursday night.
“I don’t believe they’ll be intimidated by a stadium or anything else out there,” Fedora said of his players. “We’ve gone to Heinz Field. It’s a great place to play and a great venue. They’ve got a heck of football team. They wouldn’t be a one loss team without it. They’re playing really well. You have to take your hat off to (Narduzzi) in his first year. The kids have bought in and he’s done a great job with it.
“(But) I’ve got complete confidence in our kids. The leadership on this football team is getting it done. It’s not about the coaches, it’s about the players and those are the guys that are making it happen.”
AND ON TO FRIDAY …
ACC football fans will be treated to three straight playing dates over the Halloween weekend, as Louisville makes its first-ever trip to Wake Forest for a Friday evening Atlantic Division battle.
“We’re excited that the football capital of the world will be in Winston-Salem on Friday night,” said Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, whose team will play its second home game in six days after falling to NC State at home last Saturday. “We’re on a national TV game, and our guys are excited to bounce back. We have to have a great week of practice. We have to get the players fresh. Again, this will be another great challenge for our football team.”
While playing on Friday night obviously makes for a “short” week, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino says preparing for the game this week has not been noticeably different.
“This one's not so bad because we got a normal Tuesday practice in (Monday night), and then everything goes back to pretty much a normal week,” Petrino said. “(The players) did get a lot of rest. It's not as hard as playing Saturday and then Thursday. This is just really a normal week for us. The coaches actually put in a little extra time on the game plan. We had to get a lot of stuff done between Sunday and today's practice. It's gone well. It's been good.”
TIGERS’ GUARD UP AS THEY HEAD TO NC STATE
Saturday’s trip to NC State looms as the ultimate “trap game” on third-ranked Clemson’s football schedule, as Tigers’ head coach Dabo Swinney knows all too well.
Trying not to look back at Saturday’s 58-0 shutout of Miami or ahead to next week’s home game against three-time defending ACC champion Florida State, Clemson seeks its fourth straight series win against the Wolfpack and its 11th victory in the last 12 meetings. But the Tigers’ eighth-year head coach knows those kinds of numbers can be deceiving, particularly with his team about to set foot on NC State’s home turf.
Swinney was at the helm in 2011, when his seventh-ranked and eventual ACC championship team went down to the Wolfpack by a stunning 37-13 margin. A third-ranked Clemson squad fared better a Carter-Finley Stadium two years ago, but the Tigers’ maximum effort was still required before they escaped with a 26-14 win.
“It’s a tough place to play, we all know that,” Swinney said. “We have great respect for NC State and their environment is one of the best places to play in this conference. We know they will be jacked up for the Tigers to show up. So for us, we need to have a great week of preparation and really get dialed in. (The Wolfpack) will take advantage if you’re not where you’re supposed to be.”
Even if one chooses to ignore Clemson’s last two visits to Raleigh as a point of reference, Saturday still looms as a potentially tough test. NC State moved to 5-2 with last week’s road win at Wake Forest. A victory over the the Tigers would earn the Wolfpack bowl eligibility. And while both of NC State’s losses came in ACC play, the Wolfpack still has a chance to work its way back into the Atlantic Division picture with Clemson, Boston College, Florida State and Syracuse lined up on the schedule the next four weekends.
“I’m really impressed with NC State,” Swinney said. “Coach (Dave) Doeren has done a fantastic job of recruiting and getting his philosophy and systems in place. It’s obvious to see the improvement in their team. This is a well-coached football team in all phases, and they’re playing hard, smart, tough and confident. They have 18 starters back so this is a veteran football team at 5-2.
“They’re going to be playing at home, with a sellout crowd and a top-ranked team coming in there. So this is a great opportunity for NC State, and we know we will get the best they’ve got.”
Doeren doesn’t downplay the importance of Saturday’s game to the Wolfpack.
“They present a lot of challenges, but at the same time it’s a big opportunity,” Doeren agreed. “We are excited about the challenge as a staff and the challenge as a team. The team has a chance to play against the No. 3 team in our stadium on homecoming.”
Doeren believes his players are confident, and those that watched last Saturday night’s Georgia Tech-Florida State game saw that a determined underdog can’t be counted out.
“They all watched the Georgia Tech game from last weekend and saw a great upset,” Doeren said. “They all know. Any game, any team can win. If you play to the best of your ability, any team can beat anybody. We are going to give it everything we can and play a great team.”
Thursday night’s North Carolina-Pitt game was only part of the weekend equation in terms of the ACC Coastal Division race. Saturday night will find 18th-ranked Duke attempting to remain unbeaten in conference play as it welcomes Miami in the Hurricanes’ first game under interim head coach Larry Scott. A win would leave the Blue Devils tied with UNC for first place atop the division standings at 4-0.
“What a great atmosphere – to get to play Halloween night,” Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe said. “You kind of earn that – you’ve been playing well so you get selected to play in a primetime slot on television. I think it’s great for the Duke community, Duke crowd. I’m excited, looking forward to it. I know our players are. And then you take the history of Miami and its program, and you’re playing them on national television on Halloween night – what a challenge that is and what an opportunity that is.”
SCOTT LEADS ’CANES FORWARD
In spite of last week’s loss to Clemson, Miami (4-3 overall, 1-2 ACC) remains very much in the Coastal hunt. Each of the Hurricanes’ remaining five games is against a division opponent. That is the only thing that matters to Scott, who served as Miami’s tight ends coach before being tabbed to take over the head coaching duties following last Sunday’s dismissal of Al Golden.
“It’s not about me,” Scott said. “It’s really not about that. When this opportunity was presented to me, it was, ‘Yeah. Let’s go to work.’ But for me, it was about the kids. It’s about the guys that I’m in the room with every day, working with. We owe them an opportunity.”
Scott downplayed any suggestion that he will be “auditioning” for a head coaching job during the final month of the season.
“It’s about here, right now,” Scott said. “All those other things always will take care of themselves. They always do. Regardless of how much you might want something, it’s about (the players). And if you make it about them, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. No matter how it works out or how it shakes out, it’s about the kids. You can walk away with your head high, or do whatever you need to do, because you did right by the young people that you were around.”
Scott says two thoughts – both centered on his student-athletes – have played prominently in his mind throughout this week’s preparation for Duke.
“‘What we can we do to help them through this? What can we do to help them reach their goal of winning the Coastal?” Scott said. “That’s been my only focus. That’s it.”
YELLOW JACKETS LOOK AHEAD
For sheer drama, it is hard to remember an ACC football upset that topped Georgia Tech’s win over Florida State. But does head coach Paul Johnson fear a letdown is inevitable as his team prepares for Saturday’s road trip to Virginia?
"I would hope not,” Johnson said. “We're 3-5. We've still got a big, big hole to dig out of. We've got to get ready to go play. This is next game, and then we've got a bye week. So if we can pull ourselves back up to one game (under .500); the goal of the team right now is try to get to a bowl game. So we've got to win four. We've got to get the number four here before the bye week and just keep, keep pushing.”
But Johnson noted that Virginia (2-5 overall, 1-2 ACC) should be just as hungry following last weekend’s tough road loss to North Carolina.
“Their backs are to the wall, too,” Johnson said. “This is probably a draw a line in the sand for them game. You know, they're trying to salvage their season. You've got to get ready for their best shot up there.”
Virginia head coach Mike London tuned in last Saturday night’s Georgia Tech-Florida State game in order to get an early look at the Yellow Jackets. Like everyone who viewed the dramatic ending, he was stunned when Lance Austin’s 78-yard return of a blocked field goal on the game’s final play lifted Tech to a 22-16 upset of the ninth-ranked Seminoles.
“(I was) just watching it unfold like everybody else when you're a fan,” London said. “The young man there had the wherewithal to pick it up, and I guess he saw green grass and he returned it. It speaks to the other side of it that at least you cover it. If it's blocked and you see a guy going towards it to pick it up, then to cover it. But this scenario, most teams people teach get away from it and that's it, you go into overtime.”
But little has been predictable during this ACC season, which has featured a three-overtime game (Virginia over Syracuse) and a conference-first four-overtime game (Duke over Virginia Tech) the past two weekends alone.
“There have been some strange finishes in college football,” London said. “Obviously, our triple overtime and the one up in Blacksburg – quadruple or whatever it is, overtime. Just the last-play scenarios in these different games in college football that have occurred, it's been really something that's bizarre, but at the same time, it's such a fine line between winning and losing.”
COOK SIDELINED SATURDAY
Florida State seeks to rebound from the Georgia Tech loss this Saturday against visiting Syracuse, but the Seminoles received a jolt of bad news Thursday when ACC rushing leader Dalvin Cook was ruled out of the game due to an ankle injury.
“It was in the game (at Georgia Tech),” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We didn’t know about it until afterwards when he came in and said it. Said his ankle was bothering him. Hopefully, he’ll be ready to go by next week. If he could play this week, he would play.”
Fisher said the injury is unrelated to the hamstring injury that bothered Cook earlier in the year.
“His hamstring feels great, doing really well; never had a problem with it at all,” Fisher said.
Ready to go in Cook’s place will be sophomore Johnathan Vickers and freshman Jacques Patrick. Vickers has appeared in all seven games for the Seminoles in 2015 and has tallied 47 rushing yards and 15 carries with one touchdown. Patrick has played in three games in his first season in Tallahassee with 12 yards on six rushing attempts.
It won’t be easy to fill the void created by the absence of Cook, who has rushed for 1,037 yards and 11 touchdowns thus far.
Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer got a close-up look at leading Heisman Trophy contender Leonard Fournette last month, when the LSU junior tailback rushed for 244 yards and two touchdowns in leading lead the Tigers to a 34-24 win over the Orange at the Carrier Dome. Shafer believes Cook deserves equal billing.
“I would put [Cook right up there with Fournette,” Shafer said. “He is a very talented, young man. He obviously did some great things last year (122 yards and a touchdown in FSU’s 38-20 win at Syracuse). We’ve seen him, and now obviously everybody sees him. He is a great player.”
Virginia Tech and Boston College did not meet on the football field until 1993, but they have since more than made up for lost time.
Saturday’s meeting between the teams at Chestnut Hill will be the 24th between the programs. It is a rivalry that has covered two conferences – the ACC and the Big East – and includes back-to-back meetings in the 2007 and 2008 Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship game. Each of the last three meetings were decided by a touchdown or less.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing there,” Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. “The students welcome you as you’re coming out of the dressing room, they want to make sure you feel welcome and at home. What’s the song they play? Sweet Caroline …I’ve gotten to know all the words to that song.”
With a seating capacity of 44,500, the Eagles’ Alumni Stadium remains just intimate enough to make the home crowd truly feel part of the action.
“I like it,’ Beamer said. “It’s a stadium that’s really all in there together. I like those kind of stadiums myself. Fans are usually screaming at you. I’d much rather be at a stadium with fans that are screaming than fans that don’t care. We’ve had a lot of battles, I think back over the years and we’ve had a lot of battles there, a lot of battles down here. Usually a very good game, very competitive game for sure.”
Both teams seek to rise from the doldrums of recent disappointment. The Eagles are mired in a four-game losing streak in which three of the games were decided by a field goal or less. Virginia Tech seeks to rebound from a four-overtime loss to Duke last Saturday, a game in which the Hokies led in two of the extra periods.
Despite the struggles, Boston College coach Steve Addazio believes he is still getting the best effort from his team as the Eagles head into November.
“There is no backing off,” Addazio said. “You don't see a chink in terms of offense, defense, or special teams. There is great effort everywhere. Guys laying it all on the line – that's what you see. That is a fact.
“Was there disappointment in the locker room? Yes. It's hard to get your heart ripped out three weeks in a row with these three- or two-point games when you have the ball at the end. It's literally down to the wire. That is very difficult emotionally. And we've come off two road trips and we haven't had a bye week. And there is no chance to regroup. That will test anybody, never mind a young team like this. I think they've been fantastic. I am really proud of them. We're a tough team. We practice hard. It's a hard program. And they keep responding.”