On August 3, 2018, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett laid down the gauntlet.
On the opening day of Pitt’s training camp, the sophomore, who had one career start under his belt at the time, said that the 5-7 season that Pitt had muddled through in 2017 was not going to happen again.
“Last year, honestly, it was embarrassing,” Pickett said. “I was embarrassed. Some people won’t say that, but I love to win. We win at Pittsburgh. So, 5-7 won’t happen again, I can guarantee that.”
On August 24, 2018, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi raised the stakes.
Speaking to alumni and boosters at Pitt’s kickoff luncheon before the start of the 2018 season, Narduzzi signed off his remarks with an even greater promise.
“Next time we’ll see you is in Charlotte for the ACC championship game, because we’re going.”
Words, of course, are cheap. They have to be backed up by action.
Through the first five games of the season, it didn’t look like Pickett and Narduzzi were going to hold up their end of the bargain.
In Pitt’s 2-3 start, Pickett didn’t throw for 200 yards in a game, was held to 55 yards passing against rival Penn State, and has just one more touchdown (five) than interceptions (four).
The entire Pitt passing offensive looked to be in disarray, with receivers failing to get quick separation and the Panthers’ offensive line seemingly unable to hold a block for a long route.
But there was something else missing. That “it factor” born out of equal parts confidence and ability that had made Pickett’s emergence as a true freshman in 2017 seemed to have left him.
He looked harried in the pocket, too quick to run and too hesitant to take some of the options that were presented to him.
Narduzzi’s early season actions both fell short of his proscribed line.
His defense insistently stuck to its base principles and was shredded by Penn State and — more embarrassingly — North Carolina, before Narduzzi made a change to a nickel against UCF that still failed to contain the athletes of the high-powered Knights.
Even in Pitt’s Week Oct. 27 win over Duke, the Panthers yielded over 600 total yards, hardly a performance that struck fear in the hearts of the rest of the division.
Saturday, Pickett and Narduzzi came through, expertly guiding Pitt to a dominant 34-13 win over Wake Forest to help secure the first outright conference or division title in program history.
But it was more than just that the Panthers won. It was the way Pitt won.
With the running game bottled up for the first time in months, Pitt had to rely on Pickett to move the ball down the field. The young passer came through, completing 23 of 30 for a career-high 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Unlike games against Virginia and Virginia Tech, when the opposing offenses didn’t necessarily have all of the pieces and schemes in place to take full advantage of Pitt’s defense, Wake Forest did.
But the Panthers held star receiver Greg Dortch to 33 yards, intercepted Deacons quarterback Jamie Newman twice and held Wake Forest to their second-lowest point total of the 2018 season.
There was a point this season that Pickett and Narduzzi’s predictions didn’t just look unlikely, but outright laughable. Saturday, they got the last laugh.
See you all in Charlotte.