PITTSBURGH — Sam Howell had the better of the statistics, completing more of his passes, with a better rating, with a higher yards per attempt.
But it was Kenny Pickett that made the play when the game was on the line, in the worst possible conditions.
The Thursday night battle between Pitt and North Carolina was billed as a showdown between two of the top quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft in Pitt’s Pickett and North Carolina’s Howell.
There were 39 NFL general managers and scouts from 21 different NFL teams in the Heinz Field press box to see the showdown.
The high-powered battle between the prodigious passers never really developed the way many thought. Pickett knifed through the North Carolina defense in the first half, but scuffled in the second and nearly threw the game away with an intercepted screen pass in the fourth quarter.
Howell was harried from the start by Pitt’s defense, was sacked five times, and — outside of a 76-yard touchdown where the Pitt defender fell down — was forced to to run nearly as often as he threw for much of the game.
But Howell’s talent shined through, making a 46-yard completion to Josh Downs to get North Carolina into scoring range in the fourth quarter, keeping it himself to score than touchdown, then leading the Tar Heels back inside the 5-yard line before settling for a game-tying field goal.
“He’s one of the best in the country, no doubt,” Pickett said. “He’s a heck of a player.”
The conditions were not exactly conducive to high-scoring offense. The rain started in the fourth quarter and by the end of the game, the wind was whipping the cold rain in swirls through Heinz Field.
In those conditions, Howell had the ball twice and got a field goal. Pickett had it once and scored a touchdown. That was the ballgame.
“It definitely does make it harder, but I can make any excuse,” Howell said. “At the end of the day, the game is on the line, we’ve got to execute. … We had a lot of chances to win the game.”
When comparing the two quarterbacks, the physical traits are similar. Howell is listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. Pickett stands 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. They’re both mobile and athletic but neither is outright fast.
Howell has a slightly stronger arm, and perhaps a better deep ball, which are things that NFL teams value. Pickett has something else that they value just as much, but is harder to evaluate. He’s tough as nails, and performs no matter what, under pressure, under adverse conditions, even after having failed his last time out.
“That’s Kenny Pickett.” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Nobody’s perfect. That tells you what kind of competitor he is. He made a mistake … But Kenny Pickett comes right back and does what he does.”
Pitt fans have known that for a while now, but the NFL found out in a big way on Thursday, too. There’s a long way to go before Pickett’s draft day, and a lot of things yet to come will impact the way he’s evaluated at the next level.
There will be a Senior Bowl, an NFL Combine, a Pro Day, countless interviews, dinners, phone calls, and a hundred other things that will influence each of the NFL executives.
But some things — the things Pickett possesses — can only truly be shown when playing with your team, when the game matters, and everything is on the line.
Pickett came through.