PITTSBURGH — Kenny Pickett had an interesting afternoon on Saturday as his Panthers knocked off Duke, 54-45 to move to within a half-game of first place in the ACC Coastal.
At the end, Pickett was the hero, directing a drive that went 72 yards in 1:14, capped by his touchdown heave to a diving Maurice Ffrench in the end zone.
There were certainly moments throughout where, for perhaps the first time this season, he looked like the quarterback that many thought he would become after the promising end to his freshman season.
There was a 30-yard touchdown on a called bootleg in the first quarter that thoroughly fooled the Blue Devils. Then there was a 50-yard spiral dropped right into the hands of Ffrench in the second quarter for another touchdown.
In the third quarter, after a Qadree Ollison touchdown run, Pickett gave ground to avoid pressure, made a defender miss and then calmly delivered the ball to Rafael Araujo-Lopes in the back of the end zone to secure the two-point conversion.
The rest of game, the passing game was a struggle. There were some missed reads where Pickett forced the ball to a more-covered receiver, there were some plays where no one was open and he smartly threw the ball away, there were some missed throws and at least one drop.
But outside of the final drive and that one second-quarter pass to Ffrench, Pickett threw for grand total of 28 yards. Two of the passes were check-downs to Ollison. Clearly, Pitt’s passing game had some issues in between brief fits and spurts of success, and Pickett acknowledged as much after the game.
“I’d say so,” he said. “I’ve got to go back and watch. There were a couple that we needed to hit that we just weren’t hitting. Kind of a timing thing, getting Taysir [Mack] back after being down. That’s something that we’re going to have to work on.”
The Kenny Pickett that surfaced on the final drive was the player that fans had thought they were going to get this year and the biggest difference between expectation and reality for Pitt in 2018 has probably come right down to that — the play of the quarterback and the overall execution of the passing offense.
It’s important to lump those two together. It’s a system. From offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to the offensive line to the receivers, every part of Pitt’s passing game has faltered at times this season. It’s unfair to put that onus completely on Pickett.
There was, as Pickett said, some timing issues with getting Taysir Mack back after an injury forced him out of the last two games. He had not been a full participant in practice leading up to the game, so it’s understandable that he and Pickett weren’t quite in sync.
Against Duke, Pitt protected fairly well, and as a result, Watson seemed more willing to open up the offense, calling several deep balls and getting receivers moving on deeper routes.
It was an inconsistent effort, but finally, Pitt’s passing game showed the kind of promise that it hasn’t at any point this season. With some fine-tuning, it appears that they could get even better, and with Pitt’s running game clicking at the rate that it is — the Panthers had their second-highest rushing total in program history on Saturday — Pitt finally showed the offensive potential that would be required to believe that they are capable of winning the Coastal Division, something that remains very possible after the win.
WHO IS NO. 19?
In the first quarter, I watched from the press box as a short player wearing uniform No. 19 came out onto the field as part of a Pitt offensive substitution. I picked up my binoculars and thought the nameplate said “Carter.”
But that couldn’t be right. The only Carter on Pitt’s roster was true freshman cornerback V’Lique Carter, a player so far down the depth chart on defense that he’s been playing on offense on the scout team.
I turned my head to Pitt’s EJ Borghetti, who sits over my left shoulder, and said, “EJ, who is No. 19?” Borghetti answered that it was, indeed V’Lique Carter.
Before I got to answer any of my follow up questions like “Why is he playing offense?” Carter took a jet sweep, made a man miss and gained 11 yards off the right side.
Oh. That’s why he’s playing offense. Later, he had a 60-yard rush, a 31-yard touchdown, and did this on his way to a second score.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) October 28, 2018
By the end of the game, the question became, “Where has he been all this time?
Carter didn’t even play running back much in high school, nearly eclipsing his entire rushing total from four years with his 137 yards — done on just seven carries.
Narduzzi didn’t address the situation specifically, but an undisclosed injury to Mychale Salahuddin, who did not dress, likely opened the door for Carter to get some playing time in practice during the bye week and he impressed when he got the chance.
“He was okay on defense,” Narduzzi said. “[There’s] a lot of things going on, communication, things you need to know. We put him on as a scout team tailback first couple weeks. Holy cow, this guy is explosive. You saw what he did with the ball in his hand. Always held onto it. Never fumbled. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while here. Kind of saved it a little bit for the ACC play. But he’s explosive. He’s fast. Obviously he’ll get a few more carries next week.”
Narduzzi said that if Carter continues to play that well, he may be in line for more than just the four games afforded to a true freshman. He also seemed to suggest that he’s going to stay on offense.
“We’ll go recruit another DB,” he said. “You got to score points to win nowadays. That’s the name of the game.”
MOVING THE CHAINS
Carter wasn’t the only former cornerback playing on offense for the Panthers that made an impact. Ffrench had two catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns and seven carries for 69 yards. But outside of those big plays, what kept Pitt’s offense rolling was the ability of Qadree Ollison, and to a lesser extent, Darrin Hall, to keep the chains moving.
Hall and Ollison combined for 202 yards rushing on 31 carries. Just four of those carries were negative plays. Ollison didn’t have any.
When Pickett and the passing offense misfired, Pitt would just hand the ball off, even in a long down and distance situation, and time after time, Pitt’s running game shortened the distance to the sticks or picked it up entirely. Pitt had only eight third downs in the game. On Pitt’s three fourth-quarter scoring drive, they had just two total third downs.
When Pitt had eight yards or fewer on third down, they made the line of gain four out of five times. They were 0 for 4 on tries from nine yards or more.
3rd-2: Hall 3-yard rush.
3rd-4: Pickett pass to Dontavius Butler-Jenkins incomplete; defensive pass interference called on Duke.
3rd-6: Pickett scrambles, no gain.
3rd-7: Pickett 30-yard bootleg touchdown.
3rd-8: Pickett scrambles for 24 yards.
3rd-9: Pickett incomplete pass to Ffrench.
3rd-11: Pickett complete to Shocky Jacques-Louis short of the sticks.
3rd-13: Pickett incomplete pass to Ffrench.
3rd-30: Pickett incomplete pass to Taysir Mack.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Pitt played without starting defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, who missed the game for officially undisclosed reasons. Multiple told Pittsburgh Sports Now that Camp missed the game with an injury. He was not on the sideline for the game.
In his place, redshirt freshman Jaylen Twyman started, somewhat surprisingly ahead of junior Amir Watts. Watts and Rashad Wheeler both subbed in liberally, but the loss of Camp was clearly felt.
Duke was probably the first team all season to be able to run the ball up the middle against Pitt, with Deon Jackson setting a program record for all-purpose yards. Duke did most of that rushing while Pitt was playing base defense, which also allowed Blue Devils slot receivers TJ Rahming to run free for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
“They started lining up in a ton of empty, not think about running it,” Narduzzi said. “Two straight series, empty, dink, dink, dink you to death. All of a sudden the next series, they come out and run it down your throat. We just didn’t do a good job. We didn’t play very good on defense.”
ALL ON THE TABLE
Pitt’s win set up a pair of potential first-place battles for the Panthers. Pitt will visit 4-1 Virginia on Friday, with the winner taking the driver’s seat in the Coastal, but only for a few days, as Pitt will face Virginia Tech the following week.
Narduzzi said after the game that keeping pace with the Cavaliers and the Hokies wasn’t at the forefront of this thoughts after the game.
“I don’t care,” he said. “We’re 1-0 in the ACC [Saturday]. [Sunday], we go back to work about 7 a.m., work on Virginia on a short week, try to be 1-0 again.”