ATLANTA — Out of everything Pittsburgh accomplished in its 52-21 victory at Georgia Tech in the ACC opener, turning around the ugly early game trend might have been the most impactful moving forward.
Pitt (4-1, 1-0) fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter of its trip to Tennessee and 20-7 early in the second quarter against Western Michigan, only managing to turn one of those deficits around for a win. On Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Panthers turned the tables.
“It just comes down to learning,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It’s just a different road game; they’re all going to be different. We’re going to have to deal with that adversity like we dealt with at Tennessee again, so we learned our lessons and our kids started fast.”
The defense intercepted Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2) quarterback Jeff Sims on both of his first two pass attempts, turning the two turnovers into 14 quick points. Deslin Alexandre had the first interception, and Johnny Petrishen had a 33-yard pick six that made it 14-0 Panthers just 41 seconds later.
“I felt like I’ve seen that in my mind a thousand times,” Petrishen said on the pick six. “It really just felt like a movie playing out.”
PICKETT’S BIG DAY
The defense created the early momentum, but it was Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett who seized it and dominated for the rest of the afternoon. Pickett finished 23-for-36 passing for a total of 389 yards and four touchdowns, moving himself into third place in school history in total touchdowns with the fourth one.
“I think it’s just experience and playing together and having confidence in one another,” Pickett said. “It’s something we’ve preached all year. It’s nice to continue that in ACC play against Georgia Tech.”
Pickett shared the wealth all day, throwing the ball to 11 different receivers and finding nine of them on pass plays of at least 10 yards. Taysir Mack and Jordan Addison combined for 238 receiving yards on 11 receptions and both caught first half touchdown passes from Pickett.
“I say we compliment each other because when I’m in the slot they kind of fear my speed,” Addison said about the partnership with Mack. “There was actually one play that he caught over the middle, we called the play and I told him ‘get open, I’m going to run them all off.’ and I did that and he made a big play, so I feel like we compliment each other really well.”
In addition to climbing up the career touchdowns leaderboard, Pickett also broke Dan Marino’s school record for the most touchdown passes in a three game span. Marino accounted for 13 scores in a three-game stretch against Illinois, Cincinnati and South Carolina in 1981, but now sits behind Pickett’s 15 touchdowns over the last three games against Western Michigan, New Hampshire and Georgia Tech.
“I can’t even describe the level he’s playing at,” Addison said about Pickett. “I wouldn’t say I’m amazed because this was everything that he worked for and this is why he came back, but he’s doing his job really well.”
Pickett has already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks both in Pitt history and in the ACC, but his head coach thinks the respect should extend even beyond that.
“He should be a Heisman candidate,” Narduzzi said.
RED ZONE IMPROVEMENT
In last season’s 34-20 victory in Atlanta, Pittsburgh scored a total of 19 points on six trips into the red zone. The Panthers only scored one touchdown and had to settle for four field goals and turned the ball over on downs once. Saturday was the exact opposite result inside the red zone; Pittsburgh moved the ball inside the 20 six times and came away with five touchdowns.
“It’s been a focus since spring ball,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve been focusing on the red zone and what we do down there. It’s been like that all year. Last year we moved it down there and then we’d get stuck a lot. We’re not getting stuck anymore, and that’s a tribute to coach [Mark] Whipple and the offensive staff.”
The red zone success was another element of the fast start that has been missing in the past. Pittsburgh scored three points on two red zone trips in the first quarter of the Georgia Tech game in 2020, but punched the ball into the end zone on both opportunities in the opening frame on Saturday. Pickett threw three out of his four touchdowns from inside the red zone, and both of running back Israel Abanikanda’s two trips to the end zone were on runs from inside the 10.
‘[It was] Being more aggressive in execution,” Pickett said about the differences in the red zone. “Guys were executing at a high level, and when you do that you’ll put up points and put a lot of pressure on the defense.”
On the other side of the red zone coin, the Panthers were stout in key moments. Georgia Tech moved the ball inside the five on both its last possession of the first half and first possession of the second half, and the Panthers did not yield a point on either occasion.
“Our guys buckled down and played the next play,” Narduzzi said. “Our guys just continued to play. We’ve been kind of average down there on the goalline when people have gotten down there, so it was good to see us get two stops down there. Again our guys just keep learning from their lessons.”
Pittsburgh also stopped Georgia Tech on three fourth-and-1 situations. Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs has been a short-yardage ace all season, but he finished the game with minus-10 rushing yards. One of his negative carries was a fourth-and-1 stop in the second quarter that immediately led to a Pickett touchdown two plays later.
“”During those I feel like there’s more pressure on me than anyone,” Pitt linebacker SirVocea Davis said. “Just being out there with the guys and making sure everyone is set, nobody jumps offside and we just execute a big play, whether that’s a turnover on downs or a big stop on third down, it’s just special.”
Georgia Tech gained 432 yards of total offense and averaged 6.8 yards per play, but the two early turnovers and a series of critical short yardage plays throughout the afternoon made sure those big chunks of yards didn’t turn into big chunks on the scoreboard.
“We count those as turnovers in our room,” Petrishen said. “We try to get three a game. So we got those two turnovers, three fourth down stops and the blocked field goal. We’re tallying those up and we try to get as many as possible. Those are huge momentum swings.”
COASTAL IS WIDE OPEN
This was just game one of eight in a grueling conference schedule, but it would have been difficult for the Panthers to make a bigger opening statement than the one they produced in Atlanta. Pitt will now head into its tiebreaker as one of just two teams in the ACC Coastal still undefeated in conference play, and three other teams in the division have already lost twice.
“A couple weeks ago we had a wake-up call,” Narduzzi said. “Our captains continue to do a great job leading this football team. It’s player-led; I don’t do anything but watch them go.”
Pitt will have 14 days to prepare for a huge divisional game at Virginia Tech, the only other team in the Coastal without an ACC loss on the season.
“Virginia Tech is sitting right there ready for us,” Narduzzi said. “It’s never easy down there; we know that. We’ve had our struggles down there, so it’s time to take it all and do it again. It’s not always that you play your first two ACC games on the road, so that’s not an easy task at all.”