CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On the fifth play of the first drive of the game, Kenny Pickett decided to go for a run.
Pitt’s quarterback had dropped back to pass on third-and-5, but Wake Forest freshman Jasheen Davis sprinted into the backfield untouched. Pickett slipped away and dashed through the offensive line and into Wake’s secondary. After gaining about 20 yards, two Demon Deacons closed in and Pickett began to slide. But, before the veteran quarterback’s knee grazed the surface of Bank of America Stadium, he recovered, pivoted and kept on running, leaving every Wake Forest defender in the dust.
Pickett has often been praised for his arm and his vision, but this run was deft, slick and magical. It reminded some of Harry Houdini, and others of Michael Vick.
That 58-yard mad dash by Pickett for the first touchdown of the evening set the tone for Pitt. And for the rest of the night, the Panthers’ electric offense darted through Wake’s defense. On the other side of the ball, Pitt’s defense made plays when it counted, racking up 13 straight stops between the second and fourth quarters.
In the end, the Panthers raised the trophy and claimed the Atlantic Coast Conference crown for the first time in program history with a 45-21 victory in front of an announced crowd of 57,856 fans – many of whom were clad in blue and gold, chanting “Let’s Go Pitt” proudly in the waning moments of the contest.
While Pitt twice won a share of the Big East championship in 2004 and 2010, this is the first time it has won a conference title outright.
It was also the first ACC Championship win in football for a team from the conference’s Coastal division since 2010.
Pickett, who created both magnificent highlights out of nothing and executed sharply on no-nonsense plays, finished the day completing 20-of-33 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. His ridiculous first quarter scamper accounted for most of his total on the ground. That opening score by Pickett was the longest run by a quarterback in the history of the ACC Championship game.
A fifth-year senior, Pickett set a few more impressive marks too, jotting his name at the top of various record books with a Sharpie. His first passing touchdown of the day – a lob to Rodney Hammond Jr. in the flat that went for 22 yards – gave Pickett 80 passing touchdowns in his Pitt career, pushing him past Hall of Fame great Dan Marino on the all-time charts. As Pickett orchestrated Pitt’s offense, Marino cheered him and his alma mater on from the sidelines.
Pickett’s second passing touchdown of the day – a precise redzone throw to Jared Wayne in traffic – gave him 42 on the season, catapulting him ahead of a 2016 record set by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson for the most scores through the air by an ACC quarterback in a single season. Pickett accomplished the feat in 97 fewer passes than Watson too.
Aiding Pickett in helping Pitt capture the victory was his favorite target, Jordan Addison, who hauled in eight passes for 126 yards. On the ground, Israel Abanikanda tallied two touchdowns while rushing for 55 yards on nine carries.
On defense, Pitt bullied Wake’s potent offense into ineffectiveness. The Panthers’ vaunted pass rush – which ranks second nationally in sacks – swallowed up Deacs’ quarterback Sam Hartman five times, and picked off four of his passes. AJ Woods had one of those interceptions, running it back 73 yards, an ACC Championship record. Erick Hallett brought down two interceptions and scored on one of them.
The Panthers, ranked 15th by the College Football Playoff and 17th in the AP Poll, are now 11-2 on the season and 8-1 in ACC play. Pitt looks toward bowl season now, and will aim to bring another big trophy back to the Steel City.