The month of October was not kind to Pitt. The Panthers started the second month of their 2020 campaign with a 3-0 record, senior quarterback quarterback Kenny Pickett was rolling and Pitt seemed well on its way to the kind of successful season many predicted when Paris Ford and others signed up to return for Pat Narduzzi’s sixth season.
In October, everything that could go wrong for the Panthers did.
The defense, which looked like world-beaters on paper, gave up too many big plays, took too many penalties, and were picked apart by opposing passing schemes.
Pickett injured his left ankle in a super-human effort at Boston College, but couldn’t lead the Panthers to victory after a shanked extra point in overtime. Pickett missed the next two games, both Pitt losses, while the offense scored a total of one touchdown.
In the second of those losses, a lopsided romp by No. 3 Notre Dame, Pitt looked listless and uninspired, except for starting safety Paris Ford’s sideline argument with coaches about being taken out of the game.
Just after that game, Ford left the team, opting out for the remainder of the 2020 season. During the team’s off week, cornerback Jason Pinnock was suspended for a week.
It’s hard to judge the mental state of a team from afar, but no one could have blamed the Panthers for being somewhat downtrodden. The combination of mental blows that the team took in October would have been more than enough to dampen even the most enthusiastic of spirits.
With the calendar turned to November, Pitt had a chance at a redemption. Their trip to Florida State, which appeared to be a tall test when originally added to the schedule, no longer did, as the Seminoles had struggled even more significantly than the Panthers had to that point in the season.
It also became an important game. A win could get the season back on track and revive hope for finishing 2020 with a respectable record, even if it’s still likely to be short of where the Panthers were aiming.
A loss, though, would have just been one more emotional hit on top of the pile above and have left the Panthers staring at the very real possibility of finishing the 2020 season with an eight-game losing streak.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
The first sign that things would be different for the Panthers came early in the morning, when it became clear that Pickett would be able to return as the team’s starting quarterback after missing just two games with his ankle injury.
Pitt’s offense badly needed what Pickett delivered: a combination of mobility, poise and a calmness that redshirt freshman Joey Yellen was unable to bring. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Yellen’s future. He remains a talented prospect with a big arm.
But Pitt’s offense in 2020, with a weak running game and at-times spotty pass protection desperately needed Pickett’s calmness and coolness under fire.
Pickett’s numbers are not eye-popping — he produced a modest 210 passing yards — but he was hyper-efficient. Pickett completed 21 of 27 passes on the day, including all 11 balls thrown toward standout freshman Jordan Addison.
His precision helped Pitt move the chains and equal the time of possession after getting dominated in that facet against Notre Dame. Pitt’s defense can be a world-beater at times, but they have been asked to do too much with the offense stalling without Pickett.
But even after Pickett returned, things did not start out great for the Panthers. Florida State scored on each of its first two possessions to take a 14-3 lead and the game quickly seemed like it was trending the wrong way once again for the Panthers.
Given the emotional toll of the last month, it would have been easy for the Panthers to roll over and give in. But they didn’t. Pitt buckled down on defense, allowing only a long field goal the rest of the day, and Pickett and the offense chipped away at the Florida State lead.
“It just tells you our kids believe in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and, you know, we really talked a lot about the details,” Narduzzi said. “Take care of the little things and the big things that take care of themselves. We preach that and our kids did a lot of the great details today. They really played together as a football team and it tells you we have a character football team. There’s a ton of character. Our kids, they had fun today, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
The combination of the return of Pickett and the comeback victory seemed to give Pitt something that it has lacked for a little while now: hope.
The goals and dreams the program had back in August are mostly gone.
But there is still plenty of room for the Panthers to salvage some success out of this season. With the win over Florida State evening their record at 4-4, a 6-5 final record and a bowl bid aren’t out of the question.
“I hope so,” Pickett said. “I’m not worried about weeks down the road. I’m worried about Georgia Tech right now, and, you know, remaining healthy, having a really good week of practice and heading down there.”
YOUNG BUCKS STEP UP
In the repeated blows that Pitt has taken this season, no position group has been harder hit than the secondary.
The Panthers lost starting cornerback Damarri Mathis for the season to a non-football injury during training camp. The senior has been replaced by sophomores Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods. Without Pinnock out on Sunday, those two filled in as well as freshman Rashad Battle.
At strong safety, redshirt freshman Brandon Hill stepped up in place of Ford and Erick Hallet continued his Swiss Army knife role as Pitt’s fifth defensive back.
Pitt’s defensive secondary played well despite the absences, limited Florida State’s three quarterbacks to a combined 23 of 41 passing for 144 yards and three interceptions, with Hill returning his for a touchdown.
Hill said it was just a matter of guys getting a chance to show what they’ve been capable of doing.
“Yeah, I feel like everybody in that room in that DB room was very talented,” Hill said. “When everybody got the opportunity to come, it was time to step up. A great group of guys in that DB room and we felt like we played good together. I feel like we’re a close group. I feel like we’re very close together. The communication was there. I’m talking to Damar, I’m talking to A.J. Woods, I’m talking all over the field. So I feel like we communicate well and we’ve got a good relationship together. So I feel like it’s easy to play with each other.”
While Yellen’s audition during Pickett’s absence was tepid, Pitt’s secondary has done well to replace its missing men.
That’s just one more reason to hope that Pitt’s turned the page from a frightful month. It didn’t have to be this way. Many of the problems that sank Pitt in October were self-inflicted. The Panthers failed to meet the challenge of their own expectations and success through the first third of the season.
But they haven’t quit fighting, either, and for that, they and Narduzzi deserve credit.