Pittsburgh looks to keep momentum going against reeling Tar Heels

PITTSBURGH — It only took two months, but Pittsburgh seems to have settled on a quarterback. Maybe not coincidentally, a bit of momentum has followed.

While head coach Pat Narduzzi stressed sophomore Ben DiNucci needs to continue to improve, the Panthers (4-5, 2-3 ACC) have also won two straight with DiNucci taking every offensive snap to revive their chances of extending a bowl streak that dates back nearly a decade.

The easiest path includes a victory over struggling North Carolina (1-8, 0-6) on Thursday night. If the Tar Heels snap a six-game losing streak, it means Pitt would have to find a way to beat Virginia Tech and Miami in successive weeks to ensure their season extends beyond the day after Thanksgiving.

Not that Narduzzi wants to talk about it. And he’d prefer if his players decided to skip the subject too.

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

Something Pitt has avoided in competent if not overpowering victories over Duke and Virginia to breathe some life into a season that flirted with disastrous. DiNucci has completed just 18 passes combined in the wins, but maybe the best news for the Panthers is they haven’t needed him to be great. An improved running game led by Darrin Hall and a rapidly improving defense have given the Panthers a sense of identity they were lacking early on.

That’s not the case for UNC. The Tar Heels are coming off a much-needed bye. The down time has allowed them to heal up a bit from the group that was down down 22 players — 17 for the season — heading into a 24-19 loss to unbeaten Miami on Oct. 28.

“I think they’re all fresher, there’s no doubt about it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I think they’re fresher just because they got some time off. You go nine weeks and then you go four weeks of camp, that’s a long time before you had a bye week and a chance to give those guys a break. And it’s as much mental as it is physical.”

While Pitt seems to have found stability at quarterback, the Tar Heels remain very much in flux. Three different players have taken turns at the wheel, starting with LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris followed by redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. Then, with Harris sidelined by an injury and with Surratt leaving after a hard hit, sophomore Nathan Elliott played much of the way in the 24-19 loss to unbeaten Miami on Oct. 28.

It’s unclear whether Elliott has earned more playing time.