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Three things to watch: Pitt has clear plans for North Carolina

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge during practice Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Charlie Partridge might be onto something. Actually, he usually is.

Partridge has coached college football for 23 years, including two terms at Pitt. He’s been a head coach at Florida Atlantic and an assistant at six schools, including four in the Power 5 (four different conferences).

As Pat Narduzzi’s assistant head coach who probably will be courted by other programs this offseason (Alabama interviewed him last winter), he sees the big picture along with his own position group. His defensive linemen have made steady progress this season (more on that later).

Partridge broke down Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill, N.C., between Pitt (2-1, 1-0) and North Carolina (0-2, 0-0) in simple terms, and it made sense.

He called the Panthers and Tar Heels, “two teams that are fighting to keep their programs working toward the next level. These are two teams that are fighting to climb the ladder in the ACC.”

In its first five years in the conference, Pitt never has won an ACC Coastal championship. North Carolina did so in 2015, but its record since then is 11-16. A loss will not end either team’s hopes, but it sharply reduces the margin for error.

Here are three storylines to watch:

1. Strong signals

Narduzzi likes to be cryptic in his remarks to the media, and he stayed in character Monday at his weekly news conference.

When asked about North Carolina’s 5-0 record against Pitt since 2013, Narduzzi raised some questions that he only partially cleared up later in the week.

“If I had to tell you why (North Carolina wins against Pitt), I’d be real controversial and probably be on ESPN,” he said.

Then, on Thursday, he was asked what he has learned in his three games against the Tar Heels.

“You learn something new about everybody every year,” he said. “We have to do a good job of protecting ourselves on the sideline as far as making sure our signals are going to our guys and only our guys. “We changed up who are signal callers are. We’ll have three different guys who will be live this week. We’ll have different stuff there. You learn some of those things that you go through. Who’s stealing, who’s not.”

Let’s be clear: He did not accuse North Carolina of stealing signals. But he’s taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen (again?).

2. All eyes on Williams

Pitt won’t win if junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams is allowed to take over the game. He came close to doing that last year in North Carolina’s 34-31 victory, accounting for three touchdowns.

He returned the opening kickoff 98 yards, threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on a trick play and caught five of his own for 75 yards and the decisive score with 6 minutes, 18 seconds left. Over his three seasons, he’s averaging 17.7 yards per reception.

No wonder North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott told the Raliegh (N.C.) News & Observer, “I’m in trouble, I got pressure, that’s where I got to go. He’s doing a great job. Not even when he’s getting the ball. When he’s not getting the ball. He’s going to attract people regardless.”

At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he’s also a load to tackle.

“When you tackle him, you better tackle him,” coach Larry Fedora said.

Pitt cornerback Phillipie Motley, infused with a boost of confidence last week by his first career interception, has a plan for Ratliff-Williams.

“He’s really fast, he goes after the ball and they like to get the ball to him,” Motley said. “We have to get good hands on him and try to slow him down a little bit.”

3. Pressure point

The best way to neutralize a passing game is to pressure the quarterback.

That doesn’t figure to be easy, if North Carolina’s first two games signal a trend. California and East Carolina won but never sacked the quarterbacks.

When Partridge mentioned “zero sacks,” he seemed to put a big of emphasis on the word “zero.” So, it’s good bet he’s challenged his players with that stat this week.

That brings up another player who could impact this game: Pitt sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver, who has 3½ tackles for a loss, including one of the team’s seven sacks, and three fumble recoveries.

“Good things happen to people who always run to the ball,” Partridge said.

Weaver thinks like a coach, Partridge said.

“He’s extremely intelligent,” he said. “His intelligence carries over to the field in the way he prepares. He’s always asking questions. He has thoughts to where he thinks our game plan might go. He’s kind of in our heads as coaches. That kind of awareness as a defensive end gives you confidence in doing more things with him.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry
at [email protected] or via
Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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