Not long ago, the idea of sending the Pitt football team’s senior class out with a bang seemed like a lost cause. Now, just a few weeks later, anything less than a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game would be a massive disappointment.
My, how quickly one’s fortunes can change in this thing we call college football.
“I just think everyone’s really focused right now,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “Something I haven’t seen since I’ve been here is playing in November for something serious. I don’t think a lot of these guys have in a while, you know, playing toward a championship, and that’s what we’re going after right now.”
The Panthers sat at 2-3 overall after back-to-back losses at North Carolina and No. 12 UCF, and fans had all but given up hope on a chance at a bowl game — let alone an ACC Championship.
A slight glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon after a dramatic 44-37 overtime victory against a Syracuse team now ranked No. 13 in the nation. But it might actually be the heartbreaking 19-14 loss at No. 3 Notre Dame that gave Pitt the confidence boost it needed to seize control of the ACC Coastal Division heading into the final month of the season.
“I don’t know what they were ranked, but I know they were in the top five, and we went down there and we played with them,” defensive end Dewayne Hendrix said. “I think it definitely opened some people’s eyes up, but for the people that have been here, I think that’s what they expect.”
Of course, the Panthers are still haunted by the 20-14 loss to Virginia Tech last year in Blacksburg, Virginia, when they failed to score on four attempts from the 1-yard-line to end the game. Pitt’s veteran players remember also playing in a similar situation against the Hokies at Heinz Field in 2016, when the Panthers missed out on a chance to take control of the division in a 39-36 defeat.
This time around, though, it’s not just a pivotal game in the ACC standings — it’s Senior Day. The importance of sending the seniors out on top in their final game at Heinz Field isn’t lost on underclassmen like Pickett.
“This class means a lot,” Pickett said. “They’ve been like older brothers to me because I came in early. I’ve been around them a bunch, so to go out the right way is something that’s on my mind. That’s the number one piece on my mind is just winning and get these guys what they deserve and go out the right way.”
Wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes has only been on the field for three years at Pitt after transferring from Reedley Community College in California, but that won’t make him any less emotional when he runs out of the Heinz Field tunnel for the last time this Saturday.
“It really wouldn’t matter if I was here four years or five years,” Araujo-Lopes said. “First of all, the coaches recruited some great men here. I’ve had a tremendous time on and off the field with my teammates, and truthfully, I’m going to miss those guys. I love those guys. Not just the receiver room, but the running backs, the defensive backs, I truly love this team and I’m going to miss them.”
Although his yardage totals are down, Araujo-Lopes has a career-best three receiving touchdowns so far this year and also had an impressive 86-yard punt return touchdown vs. UCF. Still, he said that with the journey he’s taken to get to this point, all the on-field numbers are secondary to the valuable life lessons he’s learned and the memories he’s made. He said he’ll probably even cry when he’s introduced for the final time.
“I just wanted to get a free education, really,” Araujo-Lopes said. “Outside of the football stuff, the off-the-field Life Skills program has been tremendous to me. The city has been great. Just everything about this university has been worthwhile.”
Araujo-Lopes points to the overtime win against Syracuse earlier this year as his favorite moment from his time at Pitt so far, while Hendrix said last year’s Miami game is still the one he looks back on most fondly. But the entire senior class knows there’s still time to make a new memory to top them all.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors this year, and we’re just trying to play for each one of them,” Hendrix said. “We’ve got big goals for the seniors, so I think just us going out every week and getting a W is really good for the seniors. We want to go to a bowl game, we want to get rings, we want to do all of that for the seniors. We want to go out with a bang.”