PITTSBURGH — For many reasons, on Saturday as the Pitt Panthers opened ACC play against Georgia Tech, the Panthers needed a win.
While the team remained confident after a 51-6 thrashing by rival Penn State seven days prior, the fanbase was clearly skeptical that a team that could put on such a performance against the Lions would be able to even make it to .500, let alone contend for a Coastal Division title. Just 34,284 were on hand at Heinz Field after a sell-out the previous week.
A poor start against the Yellow Jackets, a team that is extremely difficult to play from behind against, might have sunk the Panthers themselves, in addition to the fans.
But Pitt was able to get off to a quick start on both sides of the ball. Pitt’s defense stuffed Georgia Tech’s option attack with three straight three-and-out stops and Pitt got touchdowns from Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall on two of the first three drives to jump out to an early lead that turned out to be enough for a victory.
Ollison knew that his big run to give the Panthers an early lead was going to be “really important” as the game went on, because of the way things change when Georgia Tech gets ahead can use its option attack to work the clock.
“With a team like Georgia Tech, you know they’re going to try to win the time of possession,” he said. “They’re going to have the ball a lot. I think it was really, really important to get out to a fast start and set the tone of the game. I think we did that.”
Of course, Pitt didn’t exactly hit the ground running a week prior, but they trailed by just one score at the half before things went off the rails in the third quarter. Pat Narduzzi was impressed by the way his team came out and competed in the second half to complete the game, even if they did leave some plays on the field down the stretch.
“It’s important how we respond,” he said. “At halftime, I talked about maturity and what are we all about as a football team. Who are we? Are we going to be able to handle the success? You talk about handling adversity, all of a sudden you have 30 minutes of success and can you handle success? And then all of a sudden there’s some adversity and we handled the adversity, as well. … It’s important to bounce back, and again, it shows you what kind of football team we’ve got.”
Through three games, Ollison has been Pitt’s most consistent offensive player. He finished with 91 yards against the Yellow Jackets and now has 283 on the season. Maybe more impressively has been the way he’s shown the ability to burst through holes for big plays. He’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry this season, which would be a career high by almost a whole yard. Last season, he averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
Ollison joked that maybe he’s faster with a slightly more svelte number this year, having changed from 37 to 30. But the big reason he gave for his increased success is No. 35 — fullback George Aston. Aston missed almost all of last season with a pair of injuries.
“George does an amazing job,” Ollison said. “He’s the best at what he does. People really don’t know how smart he is. … It’s complicated. He’s really smart. George does a great job of getting on safeties, linebackers, corners, whatever you need him to do, creating those seams to run through.”
Narduzzi said he feels that both his running backs have played well, lumping Hall in with Ollison, though he’s gotten fewer reps thus far. Right tackle Alex Bookser said he feels they’ve established the running game the way they wanted to this season.
“I think it’s been a good start,” Bookser said. “We’ve got a long way to go still, obviously. I said in camp, we’ve got a real chance to be explosive. You can see, when you add it up, it can be a pretty explosive offense.”
1st HALF TEAM?
Pitt has scored 63 points this season. Just three of them have come in the second half of a game. Narduzzi acknowledged that his team needs to play better on both sides of the ball in the second half.
“I think it’s just details of a call, details of an execution,” he said. “It’s those things, drive stoppers that we’ve got to continue to clean up. But there’s always something. But again, give the defense credit for making some adjustments, as well, and maybe doing some things better.”
“We’ve got to come out with a 0-0 mindset,” Ollison said. “I think we’ve got to play 60 minutes of football. … We really have to get better. I think we will.”
Pickett thought penalties on offense were the issue. The Panthers were penalized four times for 38 yards in total — 10 fewer than the week before, but an Bookser holding penalty stalled one second-half and a Mike Herndon offside call prevented the Panthers from going for it on a 4th and short.
“When you’re playing Georgia Tech, you’re not going to get as many drives,” Pickett said. “You have bad penalties when we could have easily got it on 3rd and short and 4th and short, it kills you.”
BACK ON TRACK
After missing the Penn State game with an injury suffered in an off-campus fight, holder Jake Scarton returned to action and he, along with long snapper Cal Adomitis and kicker Alex Kessman went a perfect 3-for-3 on extra points and added a 33-yard field goal.
Punter Kirk Christodoulou rebounded from his rough game to average 39 yards per punt, downing two inside Georgia Tech’s 20-yard line. Gunner Jazzee Stocker got one punt down at the one.
It was a satisfying redemption for the special teams units that struggled so mightily against Penn State.
“All those things are important,” Narduzzi said. “It was great to see all of them bounce back. I thought the snaps by Cal were great. Obviously Jake’s holds were great, the kicks were great, and Kirk caught all his punts, which we expect him to do, so he played well. I think he’s just going to continue to get better. You live and learn, and I’m just glad our guys have learned from the situation. We got over it, and we move on to the next week.”
STOPPIN’ THE OPTION
Pitt’s defensive stats won’t look all that pretty after the Yellow Jackets marched 99 yards in the fourth quarter to come within in a score, but at that point, the Panthers were OK with trading yards for time against a team that has trouble throwing the ball downfield.
In the first half, the Georgia Tech option attack was bottled up in a big way, with quarterback TaQuon Marshall averaging 2.3 yards per carry and B-back Jordan Mason to 24 yards on six rushes.
An adjustment to the way Pitt played its defensive line, with both ends standing up as opposed to in a three-point stance, helped surprise the Yellow Jackets. “The teams that beat them and has success … they go in and out of that formation,” defensive end Rashad Weaver said.
They also got an interception from Phillipie Motley and Weaver recovered this third fumble of the season to lead the country.
“Our linebackers are making big plays and great plays,” Weaver said. “I’m just there. That’s me not loafing and just being around the ball.”
NOTES: Paris Ford returned punts and played extensively as a reserve corner after not playing against Penn State. He did not record any tackles and was flagged for defensive holding. … Elias Reynolds made his 2018 debut after missing the first two games with an undisclosed injury. He finished with two tackles. … Motley’s interception was the first in his career. … Freshman running back Mychale Salahuddin made his Pitt debut. He did not get a touch. Fellow running back Todd Sibley dressed for the first time in 2018 but did not play.