Pittsburgh may have finally found a replacement for All-American running back James Conner. After a bye week, Darrin Hall seeks a third straight 100-yard effort on Thursday night when the surging Panthers host struggling North Carolina.
Conner ran for 3,733 yards and a 5.6 yards-per-carry average during his four-year career with the Panthers, including a 1,765-yard, 26-touchdown campaign in 2014. Hall, a junior who had carried the ball only 131 times in 2 1/2 years, broke out for 254 yards in Pitt’s 24-17 victory at Duke on Oct. 21 and followed that up with 111 yards on 25 carries in a 31-14 victory against Virginia on Oct. 28. The Panthers improved to 4-5 with the wins and now have a chance of earning a 10th straight trip to a bowl game. North Carolina has lost six straight games, but the Tar Heels have won the last four games in the series, and since 2013 are the only team the Panthers have not defeated in the Coastal division.
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Pittsburgh -9.5.
ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA (1-8, 0-6 ACC): In their last contest on Oct. 28, the Tar Heels outgained Miami 428-415 and had 27 first downs, 11 more than Miami, before succumbing 24-19. Nathan Elliott replaced injured starter Chazz Surratt in the first half, completed 16-of-39 passes for 173 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions, ran for 79 yards and caught a 33-yard pass. Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams completed 2-of-3 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 25 yards.
ABOUT PITTSBURGH (4-5, 2-3): Complementing Hall’s breakout is an improved defense that has yielded just 31 points in the last two games after allowing an average of 37.8 points during a five-game losing streak to Power-5 schools. Quadree Henderson, who was an All-American kick returner last season, returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against the Cavaliers - his seventh career kick return TD, two shy of the FBS record, and eight combined kick returns for scores, one short of the record. Quarterback Ben DiNucci has completed 55 percent of his passes for 895 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
1. North Carolina leads the all-time series 8-3, including a 37-36 victory last season.
2. Henderson ranks seventh nationally in punt returns with a 16.1-yard average. North Carolina, in contrast, is 112th in punt return defense, surrendering 12.4 yards per return.
3. Elliott, who was the backup to Mitchell Trubisky last season and third string behind Brandon Harris (also hurt) and Surratt this season, entered the Miami game 8-of-12 passing for 55 yards in his career with a long pass of 20 yards, and minus-8 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 27, Miami 23