PITTSBURGH — In the finale of a losing season at Heinz Field on Friday, the Pitt Panthers got some much-needed redemption by knocking off the No. 2 team in the country with a 24-14 victory over the Miami Hurricanes.
It wasn’t just redemption for the team. Several key players that have had up and down seasons came through in crunch time to preserve the upset victory.
So, it’s a different form for my five takeaways today. Here’s the five big redemptions in Pitt’s upset win.
’GOD HAS BEEN GOOD TO ME’
The Pitt secondary was everyone’s favorite whipping boy during the 2016 season and Avonte Maddox might have been the poster child. The undersized corner was one of just two returning starters for the Pitt defense in 2017, and was probably still the player that fans most wanted to see replaced in the offseason.
Instead, Maddox was probably the most improved player on the field for Pitt from 2016 to 2017. When he injured his right elbow for the second time in his career against Duke, it looked like the promising start to his senior season would also be the finish.
But Maddox was undeterred, playing against Virginia Tech and Miami with one arm in a brace that allowed him only a partial range of movement.
In those games, Maddox played his best football in a Panthers jersey. After three solo tackles, three pass breakups and an interception against the Hokies, he had four tackles, two passes defended and a critical sack and forced fumble on the play that sealed the victory for Pitt.
Maddox is probably the most talkative guy on the team, on or off the field. But when I asked him what his emotions were like in that moment, after all he’s been through at Pitt, to end it on a play like that, something new happened. He had trouble finding the words. But only for a moment.
“God has been good to me,” Maddox said. “He’s definitely been good to me. Injuries, and he’s still brought me back to compete in this game. That feeling right there that he gave me, that was the best feeling that I could have asked for ending off my Pitt career here. I can’t ask for nothing more with them guys. I’m very thankful for them. I’m thankful for the coaches, this program, the fans, everyone here at this university and this program and this institution. It’s been a great run.”
Outside the Pitt locker room at Heinz Field, there is a photo of the team’s player of the game from every home win. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said Maddox will get that honor after his performance on Friday.
“He was looking [Thursday] night at dinner, saying, ‘Coach, I haven’t gotten on the wall yet,’” Narduzzi recounted. “I said, ‘Well, get on the wall [Friday].’ … [Associate AD] Chris LaSala, if you’re listening out there, get the picture ready to put it up. That was a big-time win and big-time sack.”
Pitt’s offensive line has had an up-and-down year. After coming into the fall perceived to be one of the team’s strengths with three seniors and two redshirt juniors in a six-man rotation. But they struggled out of the gate, with Pitt’s running game stuttering and the unit failing to consistently protect Max Browne and Pitt’s other starting quarterbacks.
Against Virginia Tech less than a week previously, that unit had watched the team’s hopes for a bowl game melt away as they failed to gain one yard on three rushing attempts.
In Pitt’s win over Miami, the Panthers did not have a great day running the ball and Pickett spent a lot of time running himself, but the series that put the game out of reach was a piece de resistance for the big uglies.
Pitt traveled 90 yards in a 12-play drive that chewed 6:10 off the clock and ended with Pickett’s 22-yard touchdown run on fourth down. Of the 12 plays, 11 were runs as the Pitt offense ran straight down the throats of Miami’s highly lauded defense.
“It was huge,” left tackle Brian O’Neill said. “We’ve had opportunities throughout the year to really have that drive, really have the one to either go win the game or go run the clock out. And we hadn’t. That was big for our growth as an offensive line, how important that drive was to us and it was crucial, critical, to winning the game.”
“We talked about just knocking them out with the drive,” Narduzzi said. “Eat the clock up. Tick tock, tick tock. Our kids were able to do that.”
PLAY FOR SUCKERS
The capper to Pitt’s drive was a stroke of playcylling genius. After playing it conservatively with three handoffs and a fade against Virginia Tech at the goal line the previous week, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson took deserved criticism for his playcalling.
Against Miami, Pitt had 4th and 5 on the 22-yard line. A field goal would have given them a 13-point lead, which would have the Hurricanes score two touchdowns to come back instead of a touchdown and a field goal.
But the Panthers decided to go for it and try to seal the win with their offense. The play call was an inspired choice. Kenny Pickett faked a handoff to Qadree Ollison, turned to back to his left on a naked bootleg and saw nothing but running room all the way to the pylon.
The best part of the play? It was a surprise. Only Narduzzi, Ollison, Pickett and Watson knew what was up. The rest of the team thought Ollison was getting the ball on a run to the right.
“Shawn Watson made a great call,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t tell the o-line. That goes into the decision. Don’t tell those guys. Otherwise, they’ll be turning around looking to see if he’s OK instead of blocking right there. It’s called a sucker play. I wish we would have called it last week.”
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
Ollison was far more than just a decoy on Friday. After he scored a touchdown on four-yard shovel pass to put Pitt up 10, it was Ollison doing most of the heavy lifting in the running game on that final drive.
Ollison ran for over 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2015, so it’s clear he’s always had that capability, but he hasn’t shown it much this season and was passed on the depth chart by Darrin Hall for much of the second half of the season.
He took his demotion in stride and helped out at the fullback spot vacated by the injury to George Aston. And he was ready when he got a second chance.
“If it was going to help the team, I’d do it,” he said. “I’m trying to help us win any way that I can. … It’s been a lot of fun learning a lot of different things, doing a lot of different things and playing a lot of football. You know your coaches can count on you and depend on you. They see you as a guy that always does the right thing. That’s a really, really good feeling.”
OUT OF THE WILDERNESS
Linebacker Elijah Zeise was one of Pitt’s best players in what was a good day for the entire defensive unit. He had two solo tackles, a diving pass breakup on third down and seemed to be in the right place at the right time most of the afternoon.
It’s a long way from where he stated the season. In the opener against Youngstown State, Zeise was frequently victimized in pass coverage by the Penguins, an FCS school.
There wasn’t one game or moment when it all clicked for him, but Zeise constantly progressed into one of Pitt’s better defensive performers over the course of 2017.
“It felt good,” Zeise said. “It was nice to see all the hard work I put in this season trying to get better come to fruition.”
With Quintin Wirginis returning, Pitt will have a logjam at linebacker next year, but Zeise has played his way into being a big part of that conversation with his stretch run this season.