Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett has heard it from the doubters all year long.
When was his breakout game coming? Why isn’t the offense capable of throwing the ball down the field? Can the Panthers win without rushing for 400 yards every game? Was all the buzz after last year’s shocking win against Miami really warranted?
Last Saturday, the true sophomore answered those questions emphatically with a 316-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece in Pitt’s 34-13 win against Wake Forest to clinch the ACC Coastal Division title. Pickett set career single-game highs in completions, completion percentage, yards and touchdowns, while his passer rating was the second-best mark of his career. The only time it was higher? Just one week earlier in the Panthers’ 52-22 win against Virginia Tech, when he threw for 162 yards and a touchdown on just 11 attempts.
After a game like that, it’s a little hard to believe Pickett hadn’t thrown for more than 200 yards all season long until Saturday. In fact, his only previous game with more than 200 yards passing came against Virginia Tech last year, when he entered the game in the second quarter to replace starter Ben DiNucci.
With the Demon Deacons defense selling out to stymie Pitt’s smashmouth running game, Pickett sensed that it was finally going to be his time to step up and get it done through the air.
“As we were going through the game, the passing game was clicking on all cylinders, really,” Pickett said. “Protecting really well, running great routes, catching the ball, finishing plays. Really, you could just tell that was the kind of game it was going to be.”
Pickett has now gone five straight games without throwing an interception, starting with Pitt’s 19-14 loss at No. 3 Notre Dame. Since then, the Panthers have rattled off four straight wins, thanks in large part to their quarterback’s ability to take care of the ball. Going back to the Miami game last year, Pickett has just five interceptions in 12 career starts and has yet to throw multiple picks in a game.
Last week, though, he proved he’s much more than just a game manager.
“We always knew that he could do it, it was just within himself that he had to find the right amount of time and the right amount of love to find out what he needed to do for us to win,” Pitt wide receiver Tre Tipton said. “And he figured it out, and now he is who he is.”
All along, Pickett stressed that he wasn’t going to start pressing the issue in search of his big breakout performance. Whether he was handing the ball off to the Panthers’ wicked 1-2 punch at tailback, throwing screens and checkdowns, or launching the ball downfield, he made it clear every week his focus remained on executing whatever job his coaches asked him to do.
Against Wake Forest, that laser-focused mindset culminated in arguably the best performance of Pickett’s career. The reward? Pitt’s first outright division championship in school history, and a date with No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte — right where head coach Pat Narduzzi guaranteed they would be come Dec. 1.
“It’s not going to change,” Pickett said. “It’s the same mindset every week, no matter what the game is. It’s the same going into this week. So I’m just going to try to be the best player that I can be. Whatever the team needs me to do is what I’m going to do.”
Everyone knows what’s at stake in the Panthers’ showdown with Clemson next week, but first, another national powerhouse stands stands in the way, threatening to derail Pitt’s momentum heading into the ACC Championship. Last year, it was the Panthers who ruined Miami’s undefeated season in the regular season finale, spoiling all that precious momentum going into the ACC title game against the Tigers.
If last Saturday’s game wasn’t the best game Pickett’s played at Pitt, then last year’s 24-14 win against the Hurricanes surely was. As a true freshman making his first career start, he threw for 193 yards and a touchdown while showcasing his dual-threat ability by rushing for 60 yards and two more scores to knock off the No. 2 team in the country.
So will he be a little more excited than usual when he takes the field and sees those “U” helmets on the other sideline on Saturday?
“I lick my chops every Saturday I walk out there, so it doesn’t really matter what team is out there,” Pickett said.