PITTSBURGH — In the third quarter of Pitt’s 33-7 season-opening victory over Albany, Kenny Pickett scrambled to his right, evaded a defender and attempted to hurdle another on a 3rd and 10 in his own zone.
Pickett needed a few more yards for a first down when he left his feet to hurdle Albany linebacker Eli Mencer. Pickett did get the yardage he was looking for, but the ball, dislodged in the hurdle, didn’t make it that far.
It was the first of two turnovers from Pickett on the day, though the other was an interception on a ball batted at the line of the scrimmage. After starting the day a perfect 13 of 13 with two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in the first half, it was the first time all day Pickett looked like the inexperienced quarterback he is.
“I think the first thing I said to Kenny at the beginning of the second quarter on the sidelines when he was warming up, I said, ‘Listen, you do not take a hit, so you go down,’” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “So what’s he do? He goes up. He must have misunderstood down and up. … But he’s a competitor. He said, ‘Coach, I was trying to get the first down.’ He’s probably five yards short. But we’ve got to be smarter there.”
It’s a lesson that Pickett is going to have to learn as the least replaceable player out of the 110 on Pitt’s roster this season. Pickett seemed to get the message as the game went on.
Later in the quarter, Pickett took off on another scramble on a 3rd and 6. After gaining the first down, he slid to avoid a hit. The only problem was that he gave himself a cramp sliding, and came up lame.
“I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “It’s a cramp. Every athlete knows that feeling. I just popped up and my calf just locked up and I couldn’t really move my ankle. That was really it. I knew I just needed to be stretched out and I’d be fine.”
Pickett said that he might need to work on his slide form in addition to deciding when and when not to take a hit. After all, one of his signature moments in his first start in 2017 was barreling over a Miami defender. Being an intense competitor is a big part of what’s gotten him this far.
“It’s very tough,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never really done in my career. Today was my first slide, like, ever I think. I’ve always been a football player. I’ve always been taught to finish my runs. It’s something I just have to get used to now. It’s just being really smart and not being stupid and trying to get an extra yard when I don’t need to. It’s something I’ve just got to take into account moving forward.”
KNOWING WHEN TO PULL THE PLUG
Of course, there was no sure thing that Pickett would even still be in the game late into the third quarter. Almost every healthy player on the two-deep had been into the game by that point, except for backup quarterback Ricky Town.
But Narduzzi said the decision was mostly a nod to Pickett’s overall level of inexperience, along with a desire to have him go out on a positive note.
“In my opinion, he’s still a freshman,” Narduzzi said. “The guy still needs those game reps. The other thing, if he would have scored on that one drive where we got tipped and picked, he would have been done right then. But who wants to walk off throwing a pick. So I didn’t want him to end like that. I was hoping we’d go down and score and that didn’t happen. But wanted him to get back out there and not be thinking about that all week. I just think that’s a mental thing. So I would have liked to have taken him out there.”
The Panthers’ relatively easy win was a big departure from a year ago, when Youngstown State took them to overtime in the opener. It’s a big change, but it’s something that the Panthers even noticed before the game.
“We felt it greatly,” defensive end Rashad Weaver said. “Coach felt it from Thursday, Friday, all the way to game time. Guys are locked in and focused in a different kind of way this year. … Everyone knows that it’s a different team and something great is coming this year.
But not everyone was totally thrilled with their performance. Pickett, who finished 16 of 22 for 154 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, though he could have been better.
“From the start, very good, and then I thought it just slipped off in the second half,” Pickett said. “Just all-around, myself, I’ll take blame first and then it trickled down from there. I wish put up some more points on the board than we did it. It is what it is. First week. Got the win, most important, and now we’re moving on.”
“I don’t know if Kenny was as sharp as I’ve seen him,” Narduzzi added. “I think he was about 75 percent. I thought he played okay. I’ve seen him play a lot better. I’ve seen him be a lot more accurate. So it’s been a long time since he’s played. He hasn’t played that much football. I expect to see a sharper Kenny next week.”
Pitt was missing Phil Campbell, Dane Jackson and Jason Pinnock from it’s secondary, as all three dressed but did not suit up. Instead, Damarri Mathis and Phillipie Motley started at corner and Dennis Briggs and Damar Hamlin got the nods at safety.
Later in the game, Paris Ford, Therran Coleman and freshmen Marquis Williams came on as relief corners and Jazzee Stocker and Bricen Garner subbed in for the safeties. Pitt didn’t play any three-corner Nickel, but did show its three-safety Delta, with Briggs moving down to play the in the box safety and Stocker or Garner replacing him up high.
The end result was a mixed bag. The Panthers allowed 263 yards through the air, occasionally in big chunks. But of course, the Great Danes were down early and ended up attempting 29 passes.
While Pitt did have a pair of picks — Mathis grabbed one in the end zone to go along with Hamlin’s long catch and return — they also had a couple of pass interference calls and completions of 40 and 37 yards. Freshman Albany receiver Dev Holmes finished with nine catches for 148 yards and a touchdown.
“It was the first game, so we were getting a little bit of some rust out,” Hamlin said. “It’s always going to be like that. We’re definitely going to make some adjustments and come back better next week.”
“I don’t think we were clean defensively like you’d like to be top to bottom,” Narduzzi said. “But if you can’t run the ball, you’re going to have troubles if you’re throwing it up.”
Pitt did hold the Great Danes to 60 net yards on the ground and had five quarterback sacks.
DOWN THE DEPTH CHART
Alex Bookser dressed but did not play at right tackle. Instead, redshirt freshman Gabe Houy made his Pitt debut by getting the starting nod. He was spelled later in the game by fellow redshirt freshman Jerry Drake and redshirt sophomore Bryce Hargrove spelled the guards, solidifying their roles as offensive linemen Nos. 6, 7 and 8 moving forward.
“They did a great job,” running back Qadree Ollison said. “Bryce, Jerry and those guys, that’s why they get those reps in practice. We preach every day in practice that if you’re a two you have to be ready to go as a one, because it’s a long season. Twelve games is a long season. Y’all are one snap away from being in there and being the guy. It was good to see those guys go out there and get reps.”
Other players that made their Pitt debut were transfers S Colin Jonov (Bucknell), TE Will Gragg (Arkansas), WR Taysir Mack (Indiana), LT Stefano Millin (Kent State), QB Ricky Town (Ventura College), true freshman WR Shocky Jacques-Louis and redshirt freshmen LB Cam Bright, WR Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, TE Grant Carrigan, P Kirk Christodoulou, C Owen Drexel, LB Kyle Nunn, H Jake Scarton, WR Michael Smith, LB Albert Tucker, DT Jaylen Twyman and LT Carson Van Lynn.
ODDS AND ENDS
Seun Idowu was the fourth captain. Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford was the honorary captain. … Pitt improved to 4-0 all-time wearing their gold helmets, blue jerseys and gold pants combination. … The attendance was 34,486, the lowest-attended season opener for Pitt at Heinz Field. Pitt has drawn fewer than 40,000 fans to Heinz Field for the fourth consecutive games for just the third time in the Heinz Field era. … Former Pitt players Quadree Henderson, Scott Orndoff and Jordan Whitehead attended the game.