PITTSBURGH — The first 11 games of the 2017 Pitt football season were underwhelming, to say the least. The Panthers were 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the ACC.
The lone game remaining on Pitt’s schedule was the No. 2 ranked Miami Hurricanes.
Pitt was in desperation mode, at the time. True freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett was given the keys to lead the team against the ACC front-runner, in Miami.
It was Pickett’s first regular season start of his college career and it wasn’t your ordinary first start for a freshman quarterback, by any means. Pickett led the Panthers to a 24-14 upset of the undefeated Hurricanes. Pickett completed 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. He also ran one in from 22 yards out for the Panthers, that sealed the deal on the final Saturday of the regular season.
Two years later, Pitt (5-2, 2-1) is now the favorite at Heinz Field against Miami (3-4, 1-3). And for Pickett, he has proved himself to be a top quarterback in the conference, while leading Pitt to the top end of the ACC.
Since Pickett’s first start against Miami, Pitt has the second-best record in the ACC, behind only Clemson.
“I think that game (against Miami) was a stepping stone to get to where we want to get to,” Pickett said. “Now I think the whole program is working toward that one goal (of winning a championship).”
Pickett’s work ethic and hard nosed mindset has transformed him and his talents as a quarterback of this team.
“I think he’s a lot more confident in the passing game,” Narduzzi said. “A year ago, we we’re a run football team and didn’t throw the ball very well — He’s obviously a lot better at throwing the ball, right now.”
His growth over the past year, not only as a passer, but a leader for his football team has been evident to his head coach.
“His first start was against Miami — where we beat the No. 2 team in the country,” Narduzzi said. “Then, he starts the entire (next) year and he’s able to lead our offense to the ACC championship game, for the first time ever — And now he’s off to a good start (this year), so far, throwing the ball.”
Pickett ranks No. 3 in the ACC in passing yards per game (267), while missing a start against Delaware.
“His pocket presence is different (this year),” Narduzzi said. “And that’s a credit to (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Mark Whipple.”
In Whipple’s first year at Pitt, he has been the key in the evolution of Pickett as a quarterback.
“He’s a winner,” Mark Whipple said on Tuesday. “He finds a way – Guys (on his team) really respect him and I’m having a blast coaching him.”
Pickett will have his hands full on Saturday against a fast and talented Miami defense, that ranks No. 3 in the ACC in total defense.
This time around, it won’t be considered an upset if the Panthers beat Miami on their home field. … It will perhaps, be just another stepping stone in the right direction for Kenny Pickett and this Pitt football team.
Alan Saunders contributed reporting from Pittsburgh.