WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For the Pittsburgh Panthers football team, Saturday was a day of predictions coming to fruition.
During the week, Pat Narduzzi told his staff to pick up caps and t-shirts commemorating Pitt’s 2018 ACC Coastal Division Championship. The Panthers hadn’t clinched anything yet, but Narduzzi had a hunch that his side would go into Wake Forest and take care of business.
“We came prepared and brought these from Pittsburgh,” Narduzzi said as he tugged on the black brim of his celebratory hat. “I said, ‘Get them. It’s going to happen.’ Our kids had a lot of faith in the second half, where a lot of teams might panic on the road.”
Narduzzi wound up being right about his team. Despite facing a four-point deficit at halftime, Pitt rallied in the second half on Saturday to beat Wake Forest 34-13 at BB&T Field. The victory was the fourth straight for Pitt and it secured a spot for the Panthers in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte on Dec. 1.
But Pitt didn’t win on Saturday by doing the thing it’s been exceptionally good at for the last month. This victory wasn’t paved by Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall and the offensive line. They all contributed to the win, but with Wake Forest (5-6; 2-5 ACC) stacking the box, running lanes were narrow. Pitt (7-4; 6-1 ACC) had to find another way to score points and it turned to sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett for an answer.
Before the game, Ollison – a wise fifth-year senior – had a feeling the team would need to lean on Pickett. He approached the second-year quarterback with the intention of injecting confidence into him.
“It’s funny. I told Kenny before the game that this was going to be his best game he’s played yet. And, by far, it was,” Ollison said. “I just felt it. Kenny has been getting better every single week. He’s become a smarter player and a real poised quarterback. He’s an amazing quarterback and one of the leaders of our offense. Just the way he operates and carries himself, he never gets rattled. I’ve never said that to him before.”
Pickett completed 23-of-30 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first time this season Pickett had passed for more than 200 yards and it was the first time a Pitt quarterback had cleared 300 yards through the air since Max Browne hung 410 yards on Rice in September 2017.
Pickett made big throws in key moments
But Pickett did more than just stuff the stat sheet. When his team needed him too, he made plays.
The first came in the second quarter. Pitt was trailing by three points and facing a third-and-13 situation. Pickett dropped back in the pocket to pass and didn’t scramble or get rattled. He delivered a strike over the middle that was hauled in by Maurice Ffrench, who made a terrific one-handed catch in traffic to come down with the ball. That set up’s Pitt’s first score, a two-yard run by Hall.
In the second half, Pickett came out firing. He found Taysir Mack down the sideline for a 31-yard gain, which set up another touchdown. This time, Pickett found Rafael Araujo-Lopes in the back-left corner of the end-zone.
Pickett found Mack again on Pitt’s next possession for a touchdown, and then the next time Pitt had the ball, Pickett connected with Ffrench on a 23-yard score. On Pitt’s final possession of the day, Pickett got into space and ran 12 yards for a first down.
“I thought (Pickett) played lights out. I thought he stepped up for us in a big way,” Pitt left tackle Stefano Millin said. “Our run game has been so good the past month or so, that he really hasn’t needed to throw the football like he did today. You guys see what he can do. He’s only a sophomore and he’s only going to get better. I’m excited for him.”
Receivers support Pickett
Pickett wouldn’t have had his impressive performance without his offensive linemen and his receivers. The big guys up front kept Pickett safe and clean for the most part, allowing just two sacks.
In a run-heavy offense, the Pitt receivers haven’t had many opportunities to shine this season, but they made the most of their chances on Saturday.
“We passed it today and I think we had some great plays,” Narduzzi said. “It started with Maurice Ffrench’s big one-handed catch on third down. And then Taysir Mack. And Pickett was outstanding all day with his run-checks and obviously throwing the ball.”
If Ffrench’s catch was Odell Beckham Jr.-like, then Mack’s stiff arm in the third quarter was Quadree Ollison-like. A week ago, Ollison threw a Virginia Tech defender on the ground en route to a 97-yard touchdown run. On a third-and-10 play Saturday, Mack caught a pass from Pickett and pushed a defender to the turf during his career-long 63-yard trip to the end-zone.
— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) November 17, 2018
Ffrench had six catches for 76 yards, Mack caught three balls for 105 yards and Araujo-Lopes had six grabs 73 yards. Araujo-Lopes also rushed once for 11 yards and tallied three first downs with his first three touches.
Rushing game bottled up early
Pitt has the 10th best rushing offense in the country and averaged more than 400 yards on the ground per-game over its last three contests. But one thing Demon Deacons refused to do was let the Panthers run all over them.
“When you have two senior backs that are playing well, teams are going to try and roll up and stop the run,” Ollison said. “Wake Forest did a good job of that today.”
The Panthers ended up rushing for 154 yards, but it was a struggle to get there. At halftime Pitt had just 58 yards on the ground, a lousy total considering what they had been doing other opposing defenses in past weeks.
Wake Forest was putting eight defenders in the box on most plays. Getting big gains up the gut just simply wasn’t going to happen for the Panthers. Pitt adjusted though and started finding success near the sidelines, running sweeps and screens. Then, after halftime, they just let Pickett sling it a bit.
“We find a different way every week to do it. It wasn’t a great first half, but our guys find a way to get it done,” Narduzzi said. “It says a lot about the character and persistence (of this team).”
Pickett’s strong play from the pocket forced Wake’s defense to spread out, which then opened things up for Ollison, Hall and V’Lique Carter. Hall finished with 44 yards, Carter had 33 and Ollison finished with 52, which moved him into ninth on Pitt’s all-time rushing list.
Defense steps up
While the offense deserves praise for putting up bunches of points in this victory, Pitt’s defense deserves credit too. After Wake quarterback Jamie Newman led two scoring drives against the Panthers in the first half, Pitt’s defense buckled down.
Wake only scored three points in the second half and Pitt’s defense frustrated Newman. Jason Pinnock and Damar Hamlin both came away with interceptions and Pitt tallied two sacks and eight tackles-for losses.
The Demon Deacons rushed for just 79 yards on 28 carries, a 2.8 yards per-carry average, and Newman finished with a negative rushing total on three carries. Against Notre Dame, he ran for 73 yards and a touchdown.
And as Pickett was leading the Pitt offense on scoring drives in the third quarter, the defense was stuffing Wake on the other end. Pitt forced Wake into three consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half.
“We came out firing,” said Oluwaseun Idowu, who led the unit with eight tackles. “I’m really proud of brothers. That was big deal, coming out (of halftime) with that much energy.”
ACC Championship bound
Reporters had to inch a little bit closer than usual when Narduzzi was giving his postgame press conference. The hit song from rapper Sheck Wes, “Mo Bamba,” blared from the locker room as Narduzzi spoke to the media and as Pitt staffers handed out shirts and hats, celebrating Pitt’s first football division title since it joined the ACC in 2013.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Narduzzi said. “We’re one step closer to where we want to go. We have the opportunity to go to the ACC Championship game in a couple weeks, but we have Miami first.”
Yes, the Miami game is still important. Playing well in Coral Gables would bode well for Pitt, giving it some extra confidence heading into Charlotte, where it will face Clemson. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have been the ACC’s best team over the past four seasons, losing just two ACC games over that stretch and winning a national championship.
One of those losses came against Pitt. In 2016, James Conner, Nathan Peterman and the Panthers sneaked out of Death Valley with a 43-42 win. Can Pitt do that again, this time at a neutral site? Maybe.
But up first is Miami. And before that is savoring the Coastal Division title, if just for a moment.
“It’s been a crazy ride since last season. A lot of hard work and countless hours,” Pickett said. “And this is why you do it. It’s a nice moment.”