ATLANTA — Pittsburgh went into its ACC opener averaging 52.5 points per game and 44.3 points against FBS opponents, but the question was how the offense would translate from a relatively weak non-conference schedule into conference play.
The inquiries were answered in less than a half.
The Panthers scored 42 points in a stretch of 21:47 in the first half and never looked back en route to a 52-21 victory over Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett finished the game with 389 passing yards and four touchdowns, moving him into third in school history in total touchdowns. But on a day where the passing game stole all of the headlines, it was the running game that started off the scoring fest.
After Deslin Alexandre secured a tipped interception on Georgia Tech’s second offensive play of the game, running back Israel Abanikanda finished off the ensuing possession with a nine-yard touchdown rush. Georgia Tech stayed with the passing game to start the next possession, and Jeff Sims was once again intercepted on a ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. This time it was John Petrishen who came up with it, and he took it all the way back to the end zone.
Pittsburgh (4-1, 1-0) scored 14 points off two turnovers in just 41 seconds, and that set the tone for the day.
Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2) briefly gained a foothold in the game when Sims found Nate McCollum for a 44-yard touchdown on the next possession, but the defense could not get the faucet turned off against Pickett and company.
Pitt restored a 14-point lead late in the first quarter on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Jordan Addison, and that was a theme all day. Addison finished the game with a season-highs six catches and 117 receiving yards, good enough to make him the Panthers’ leading receiver for the game. Pitt’s second-leading receiver was Taysir Mack, who caught 5 for 121 yards, and he was responsible for the next big play.
On the second play from scrimmage after another Georgia Tech punt, Mack beat his corner and was wide open for a 55-yard touchdown that brought the lead to 28-7. The Yellow Jackets briefly counter-punched with their own scoring drive in less than two minutes, but from there the Panthers started a 21-0 scoring run that put the game away.
Abanikanda added his second score of the game to make it 35-14, and a two-play drive that featured two passes from Pickett to senior tight end Lucas Krull took the game to its eventual halftime score of 42-14 3:10 before the intermission. That score made Pitt just the second ACC school ever to score 40+ points in each of its first five games of the season, joining the Florida State teams of 1995, 1999 and 2013.
Even with everything the offense accomplished, Pittsburgh’s defense still came up with some crucial short yardage stops. The final score of the first half was set up by a fourth-and-1 stop, and Georgia Tech came up empty on a pair of goal-to-go situations during the middle quarters. Just before halftime Georgia Tech’s Jahmyr Gibbs took a screen pass 71 yards to set up a first-and-goal from the four that the Panthers held on, and on the first possession of the second half the Yellow Jackets moved the ball inside the five before a penalty and a sack stalled the drive.
Pickett’s fourth and final touchdown of the day was also his shortest one, a two-yard play action pass on third-and-goal to Daniel Carter that ballooned the lead to a game-high 35 points. Pitt broke both the 50-point and 500-yard barriers on its first possession of the fourth quarter when Pickett led one more march down the field and Sam Scarton knocked in a 46-yard field goal.
If there was a negative for the Panthers in the game, it was the chunk plays on defense. Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims became the first Yellow Jacket quarterback to break 300 passing yards in a game since Taylor Bennett in 2007, and Georgia Tech finished the game with 415 yards of total offense. Timely stops in red zone and short yardage situations prevented the defensive performance from looking as gaudy as it did in the week three loss to Western Michigan, but the Panthers were gashed through the air with six Georgia Tech pass plays going for at least 20 yards.
The Panthers will head into their bye week with a 4-1 mark and hit the road in ACC Coastal play again on Oct. 16 at Virginia Tech.