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Five Takeaways from Pitt’s Huge Win over Virginia Tech



PITTSBURGH — With so much on the line, Pitt came through.

The Panthers, hosting Virginia Tech on Saturday in what was most likely the most important game of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as head coach, Pitt did what it hadn’t done when put in that situation so many times in the past.

Pitt completely dominated the Hokies from start to finish, jumping out to a 17-0 lead and barely looking back on the way to a 52-22 rout that put the Panthers at the cusp of an ACC Coastal Division title.

Pitt, now 6-4 and 5-1 in ACC play, seems a far cry from the team that started the season 2-3 with losses of 45 and 31 points.

How did the Panthers get to a point where completing their preseason goal of making the ACC Championship Game seems not only possible, but downright likely?

 They put their season into the hands of their seniors, particularly on offense.

With four seniors on the offensive line and three seniors in the backfield, Pitt’s running game is probably the most experienced unit the Panthers can put onto the field.

Saturday against the Hokies, they rushed for 492 yards. Darrin Hall had 186 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. Qadree Ollison had 235 yards and three touchdowns, set a program record with a 97-yard score in the fourth quarter — the longest scrimmage play in Pitt history — and broke the 1,000-yard barrier for the second time in his career.

Darrin Hall (22) November 10, 2018 — David Hague/PSN

It wasn’t supposed to play out that way. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett came into the season predestined to be Pitt’s star, with Indiana transfer Taysir Mack and flashy freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis leading the offense.

But throughout 2018, the passing game has struggled, with protection issues, an injury to Mack and a general lack of connection between Pickett in his receivers.

In the backfield, the old guard was seen as just that, as few were jumping for joy about the prospect of one final season with the duo after Hall averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season and Ollison 4.4. Good soldiers, of course, and players that Pitt fans were proud of. But game-breakers? They just didn’t seem to fit the bill. Many wanted to see more carries given to youngsters A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley and Mychale Salahuddin.

But somewhere along the way, the age and experience of Pitt’s ground units started to shine through. Under the new tutelage of line coach Dave Borbely, Pitt’s front five became a juggernaut when blocking for the run.

Ollison started using his vision more, hitting the hole a bit quicker and became a more physical runner. Hall was able to better show off his breakaway speed with increased patience.

After missing almost all of 2017 with injuries, fullback George Aston returned to the lineup, battering holes the size of Mack trucks through opposing defenses.

The addition of true freshman V’Lique Carter again gave Pitt a home-run threat in its jet sweep game to keep defenses honest.

But just as much as the individual pieces of Pitt’s rushing game have improved, there also needed to be a change in mindset.


Pitt had some success running the ball throughout the early part of the 2018 season, but couldn’t ever get the passing attack to catch up and provide the balanced attack offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was looking for.

It started the week of the Notre Dame game, when the Panthers made a concerted decision to put the ball into the hands of its two seniors running backs more often.

“We had a meeting,” Hall said, with running backs coach Andre Powell challenging Pitt’s seniors to get the job the done if given the keys to the offense.

“You guys want the rock, you guys want to win games?” Powell said. “We’re putting it on you guys.”

It was a challenge readily accepted.

“We said, ‘This is our year. We’re just going to take every game and put it on the line’s back,’” Hall said. “We embraced it and we’ve been running with it.”

In the three game since that Notre Dame trip, Pitt’s offense has put up 1,230 yards on the ground on 130 carries, a 9.5 yards per carry average, and have scored 13 touchdowns.

“We embraced it,” Hall said. “It was right. This is our year. Honestly, we just had to go out there and give it our all. No regrets in our preparation, no regrets in our watching film, and just go out and just play. That’s what we did.”


It was one thing for Pitt’s leaders to decide to the put the offense on the backs of its elder statesmen. It was another for Pitt to implement that plan in games against Duke and Virginia.

Coming into Heinz Field, on Senior Day, with so much on the line that the tension in the building was palpable was a greater hurdle. Pitt didn’t shy away from the emotions of the moment.

“It’s obviously a great day for our seniors —19 of them,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said, while visibly fighting back some tears at the podium during his postgame press conference. “We had a great moment [Friday] night with some senior videos, and then it just parlayed into what we did today with our kids. It’s a great way to send your seniors out.”

Ryan Willis (5) gets upended November 10, 2018 — David Hague/PSN

In fact, for the second straight week, Pitt was able to take on an emotional challenge right before the game (a warmup dust up with Virginia a week ago; senior day acknowledgments on Saturday) and go straight into playing excellent football. The Panthers have scored on their opening drive for three straight games and had a 17-0 lead before Virginia Tech knew what had happened.

“We talk about laser focus all the time,” Narduzzi said. “The guys were focused. They were locked in. They didn’t get the emotions get to them, and senior day out there with your parents is not easy. I’ve seen some flops when that happens. But our guys were locked into what they wanted. It just comes down to the focus that we’ve had. We talked about just the focus and not worrying about that next game or worrying about where we could be and just worried about that one job. I think our kids have learned that as the season has gone on, and they just keep talking about being 1-0 this week, and that’s what we did.”


Pitt’s film over the last two games was run heavy, to say the least. Coming into the game, it was obvious Pitt was probably going to run the ball a good bit. Pitt knew that. Virginia Tech knew that. Pitt knew that Virginia Tech knew, and so on and so forth.

That didn’t appear to be good news for the Panthers. In 2017, Virginia Tech had done an fantastic job of shutting down the Pitt running game, holding the Panthers to 75 yards rushing and stopping them on four tries from the 1-yard line to preserve the win.

Pitt needed to make the Hokies start to think about the pass, and Pickett and company finally got clicking in the first quarter to make that happen. While the running backs eventually stole the show, Pickett started the game 4 for 5 for 58 yards in the first quarter and dropped a 78-yard bomb to Maurice Ffrench in the second quarter.

“You want to come out and be balanced all the time,” Pickett said. “We had some explosive [plays] early on in the passing game and I think that definitely loosened them up. That’s when we started making hay running the ball.”

“They were pressing us up early,” Narduzzi said. “Then all of a sudden, you start to see them play off of Ffrench, and they’re playing eight yards off. That dude is fast and he can make some plays. You’ve got to make those of those plays, and we did today, and that makes a huge difference for sure.”


Pitt became bowl eligible with the win, and while that’s not the end goal of these Panthers, it is the first major step on the way. They’ll still need to win one of their next two games and then will face a serious challenge in the ACC Championship Game, No. 2 Clemson.

“We’re paving our own destiny,” Hall said. “We think ahead, but in the moment, we’re in the moment. We finally got a chance to do something that we’ve been trying to do for four years. We’re just so close. We’ve got to continue to take it one game at a time and one practice at a time.”

“{Getting bowl eligible] absolutely means something, but I feel like that’s got to be an obvious expectation to have,” Pickett said. “Wish we got it sooner, but we got it and all our of goals are still in reach. That’s the main thing. We’re just locked in. Now it’s Wake Forest.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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