ATLANTA — Pittsburgh’s running game has been almost non-existent for most of 2020.
The Panthers entered Thursday night’s game at Georgia Tech 119th in FBS in yards per game, and were still waiting for someone to break the century mark.
Better late than never.
Sophomore running back Vincent Davis took the opening snap of the game 74 yards up the middle, and that set the tone for his 247-yard game that paced Pitt (6-5, 5-5) to a 34-20 victory over Georgia Tech (3-7, 3-6) at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Not only did he put up more rushing yards than any Pitt back since Darrin Hall’s 254 yards against Duke in 2017, he saved his best for last.
When the Panthers got the ball back up 26-20 with 6:01 to go, they couldn’t afford to give the ball back to a suddenly hot Georgia Tech offense in a one-score game. Davis moved the chains for the first time with an eight-yard run on second-and-7, and smartly slid down in bounds to keep the clock moving. Four carries for 22 yards later, Georgia Tech had burned two timeouts and needed a third down stop.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett took matters into his own hand with a quarterback sneak that moved the chains, and that set up the grand finale. Davis took a 2nd-and-9 carry 38 yards to the end zone, delivering the dagger to Georgia Tech and rounding off his career night in one burst.
“This is my first time ever running for 200 (yards),” Davis said. “I fell short (in high school), in one of the playoff games I was 180.”
It was a career day for any level of football, and he knew he had a chance for something special as soon as he broke free on the first play of the game.
“We knew what type of game it was going to be,” Davis said. “We felt like it was going to be another running game like last year.”
Pitt rushed for 158 yards in last season’s 20-10 win in Atlanta, but that paled in comparison to the 317 yards the Panthers accumulated on the ground Thursday. It was the highest rushing total for Pitt in a game since the 2018 win over Virginia Tech, and offered a positive ending for a unit that has been flat for most of the campaign.
The only reason the huge ground game wasn’t part of a blowout victory was a failure to finish drives, and that kept the Yellow Jackets in the contest until that final run from Davis with two minutes left.
RED ZONE FAILURES
Pittsburgh gained 513 yards of offense and averaged almost six yards per play, but the outcome was still in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. The Panthers fizzled out in the red zone time after time, totaling up a touchdown and four field goals on six trips inside the 20 for the game.
“We’ll look at the tape to find out exactly (what went wrong),” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Was it playcalling, was it execution, there’s always a little bit of both. It’s on everybody when we don’t score touchdowns down there.”
The offense immediately followed up the 74-yard pop from Davis with a field goal, and an opportunity to take an early double-digit lead was squandered with an unsuccessful fourth-and-goal attempt on the next possession.
A very lopsided second quarter could have been enough to put the game out of sight right there, but Pitt kicked two field goals after outgaining Georgia Tech 175-46 in the quarter.
Much like Davis on the ground, Pitt saved the best (worst?) for last in terms of red zone malfunctions. The Panthers ran nine offensive plays inside the 20 on one drive early in the fourth quarter with a 23-13 lead, but couldn’t deliver a touchdown that would’ve made it a three-possession game. They even got a gift of an extra set of downs after a dubious late hit call on Juanyeh Thomas that had Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins livid, but those downs were fritted away en route to another field goal attempt that gave the Yellow Jackets possession back still within two scores.
“The disappointing one was late in the game,” Narduzzi said. “We got three points, but that should have been a touchdown. We have to execute when we get down there.”
Second downs were a real thorn in the Panthers’ side until the fourth quarter, and especially in the first half. Pitt gained just 23 yards on 11 second down plays in the first two quarters, and that set up a lot of critical third downs.
The offense stepped up.
The final count was 8 for 17, and there were some very crucial conversions within those eight.
A 32-yard rush from Davis moved the chains on a third-and-9 play late in the first half, and later in the drive Pickett found Taysir Mack for a gain of 19 on a third-and-7. Those two conversions led to a field goal that extended the lead to nine.
And the Panthers picked up two more third downs on their touchdown drive that opened the second half, again with one coming via a Davis rush and the other a Pickett pass.
“When we lost four games in a row we knew we had to step up,” Davis said. “Everybody came together. Everybody is much closer than we were before, and we just executed. Everybody dominated and was doing everything they were supposed to. Coach Narduzzi and the rest of the coaches preach to us ‘everyone do their own job.’ Everybody came out doing their own job, and we got the results.”
On the night the Panthers averaged 11 yards per play on third downs, totaling up to 187 out of the 513 yards for the game.
Although Davis and the offense carried the load in the second half, Pitt’s secondary managed to steal three possessions in the first half. Erick Hallett and Jason Pinnock bookended the first half with interceptions on the first and last pass attempts by Jeff Sims, and running back A.J. Davis came up with a collector’s item when he forced a fumble on the first play of the second quarter.
Pickett threw an interception to Quez Jackson with the Panthers driving, but Battle met the Georgia Tech linebacker on his return and stripped the ball out. The fumble recovery actually netted the Panthers 17 yards on the play and led to three more points.
The offense only parlayed the three turnovers into six points, but the Panthers managed to keep Sims uncomfortable throughout the first half. And although it won’t officially go down as a turnover, Georgia Tech’s last-gasp drive trailing by 14 points ended with the Panthers forcing a turnover on downs.
“Most definitely I think so,” Pittsburgh defensive lineman Patrick Jones II said on if the defensive performance could carry over into a potential bowl game. “There was some stuff we have got to clean up still, but I think this is a game that could keep us going into the bowl game.”
PLAY ONE MORE?
Jones mentioned the possibility of a bowl game, but that is not a sure thing. Every team in FBS is eligible for a bowl game in this COVID-19 ravaged season, and the Panthers are in the middle of a crowded ACC back with a 6-5 record.
It will be more than a week until the Panthers know if they’re playing again, but the general consensus from the team seems to be that it wants to participate in a bowl game.
ACC counterpart Boston College officially became the first school to opt out of a potential bowl bid on Thursday, and other schools could follow suit at the end of this long season. But this Pittsburgh team navigated the entire season and completed all 11 of its scheduled games, and a 12th could be on the docket.
“That’s my intention,” Narduzzi said on a bowl game. “I saw BC opted out of a bowl game. Those are decisions that are made above my pay grade, but we obviously always want to play another one. We would like to play 12.”
And if the Panthers earn that extra game, they can only hope Davis is as powerful on the ground as he was against Georgia Tech.
“Yeah we’re ready,” Davis said with a smile. “We’re ready for whatever.”