CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The recipe for a Pitt football victory this season has typically required two particular ingredients.
First, Kenny Pickett must be awesome. Not just decent or pretty good, but the fifth-year senior from Oakhurst, New Jersey has to be precise with his passing, fantastic on his feet and near-perfect with his playmaking abilities.
The second is that Pat Narduzzi’s defense has to turn the opposing quarterback into the worst version of himself. That hasn’t always happened this season – see Western Michigan – but when it has happened – see Clemson – Pitt has won big.
And on Saturday night in Charlotte, the Panthers acquired both key contents and mixed them into a winning formula. While Pickett scored three touchdowns, Wake’s Sam Hartman was sacked five times, threw four interceptions and completed just 47% of his throws.
The Panthers hounded Hartman and protected Pickett. And so, Pitt won, soundly.
Pitt captured its first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in football at Bank of America Stadium, beating Wake Forest 45-21 in a dominant fashion.
“We’re going to bring this thing home to Pittsburgh and celebrate,” Narduzzi said. “Hail to Pitt.”
Narduzzi added: “The defense was outstanding in the second half. Big time players make big time plays. … Kenny means everything. He didn’t come home to win the Heisman, but he should. He came back to Pittsburgh to win a championship. I couldn’t be happier for No. 8.”
PITT D CLICKS WHEN IT COUNTS
Wake Forest scored on each of its first three drives and it seemed like the Deacs were well on their way to hitting their scoring average of 42.9 points per-game, which ranked third nationally.
Pitt’s defense simply couldn’t get a stop early on, but that changed on the third play of the second quarter, when Pitt’s Marquis Williams picked off Hartman.
That was the first of 13 straight stops for Pitt. Before that interception, Wake had scored 21 points and hadn’t punted. After it, Wake punted on its next six drives, allowing Pitt to erase a seven-point deficit and take a 31-21 lead in the third quarter. After Wake Forest had 17 first downs in the first quarter, it had just seven for the rest of the game.
Pitt locked in, and made it extremely difficult for Wake Forest’s offense to operate. 21 points is the lowest Wake has scored all year, and 295 yards of total offense is also the lowest it has registered this season.
“For us, I think it was just taking a deep breath. We got our first stop and then we had momentum,” said Pitt senior linebacker John Petrishen. “The first quarter happened, and then we were like, ‘Here we go. It’s going to be a dogfight.’”
PITT RATTLED HARTMAN
Hartman is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and has picked apart various defenses this season. He entered this game ranking in the top 10 nationally in passing yards and touchdowns.
But beginning in the second quarter, Pitt’s pass rush – which entered the game ranking second nationally in sacks – started getting to Hartman, either folding him up into a sack and forcing him to scramble into a mistake. SirVocea Dennis led the team in touching Hartman, getting two sacks. In all, Dennis had 12 tackles, leading the team.
They didn’t always get to Hartman, but the Panthers did rattle him. Early on, Hartman was able to throw precise darts from a well-secured pocket. But often in the second half, Hartman was flinging helpless lobs into the air while on the run.
“I think with our blitzes, we started to get home a little bit more, and we were having fun out there. We weren’t afraid to make a mistake in the second half,” Petrishen said. “We knew if we were going to win this game, we had to get after him and get in his face… We got to him a little bit and he made some errant throws.”
One particular sequence late in the third quarter was a shining example of how Pitt’s aggressive defense imposed its will on the Demon Deacons. On first-and-10 from Wake’s 24, Hartman looked for a hole on a designed-quarterback run, but was met with a ferocious tackle from Calijah Kancey. Hartman then threw away an incompletion, and then threw his second pick of the night, with the ball landing in the mitts of Erick Hallett II.
Pitt took a 10-point lead two plays later on a run from Israel Abanikanda.
And on Wake’s next drive, Hartman threw another interception, which was returned for an ACC Championship-record 73 yards by AJ Woods. It was Woods’ second career interception and the first of the season. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The defensive coordinator put me in a great position,” Woods said. “I was in bail technique. And I watched the quarterback, reading his eyes the whole way through the route. And I saw he was looking at No. 2. And No. 2 was running up the middle of the seam. So, I just read it and I jumped it.
“It’s surreal. That means my name will go down in history. It was just instincts.”
The game was essentially sealed moments later, when Hallett picked off Hartman and housed it on a 19-yard return, pushing Pitt’s lead to 45-21.
Hallett is the third player in ACC Championship history to have multiple interceptions. For his efforts, he was given the game’s John D. Swofford Most Valuable Player Award.
“It was a perfect call by our defensive coordinator Randy Bates, so shoutout to him,” Hallett said. “The blitz got there and threw it hot, and I had to make a play… The pressure got there, he threw one up, so I had to go get him. I felt like our front seven was getting home at that point. I felt like (Hartman) was starting to kind of get rattled in the pocket. His eyes were coming down.”
With eight minutes to go, Hartman was finished and relieved by a backup. Pitt had rendered him useless.
Most sportsbooks set the over-under points total in this game at 71. At the end of the first quarter, Pitt and Wake Forest were already halfway there, with the Deacs leading 21-14. Wake Forest ran 31 plays in the first quarter, and both teams were closing in on 200 yards of total offense.
Eventually though, it would be Pitt who piled up most of the yards and scores. Each of Pitt’s six scoring drives lasted less than 89 seconds, as the Panthers’ offense moved with speed and efficiency.
“We just had to execute. We knew our game-plan. Everything was set. All we had to do was come out here and execute every play, take it one play at a time and we did that,” said Pitt receiver Jordan Addison, who caught eight passes for 126 yards.
Pitt ended the day with 385 yards of total offense, with 273 of those yards coming through the air, and 112 being registered on the ground. Pitt never threw an interception or lost a fumble. When you can win the turnover battle 4-0, that’s another good ingredient for a victory.
“Kenny Pickett is a winner,” said Wake coach Dave Clawson. “He’s a great competitor. He has physical skills. He appears to have all those intangible leadership qualities that make a quarterback great. I certainly have great admiration for how he plays the game.”
Leading Pitt’s offense was, of course, Pickett, who threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns. But Pickett’s best play of the day wasn’t a throw; it was a 58-yard scamper in which he eluded and faked out defenders with magic and grace. About 20 yards into the run, Pickett acted as if he was going to slide, but fooled a pair of defenders, peeled off toward the sideline and kept on running until he hit the end-zone. Pickett said the fake-slide was intentional.
“He’s an athlete, and you can’t teach that,” Narduzzi said. “It’s called instincts, and to me it was a heck of a play.”
That was the first touchdown of the game, and it set the tone for Pitt.
After winning the ACC, Pitt will get the chance to shine in the south one more time this season. It’s nearly a guarantee that the Panthers are now going to the Peach Bowl, which will be played on Dec. 30 in Atlanta, Georgia at the spaceship-like Mercedes Benz Stadium. A Peach Bowl representative sat-in on Narduzzi’s postgame press conference.
Pitt’s opponent is currently unknown and will be filled by an at-large bid. Some are projecting Michigan State to be there, while others are predicting Notre Dame.
Either way, Pitt will be there. And so will Pickett.
“I plan on playing,” Pickett said of Pitt’s bowl.
Pitt fans will be happy to hear that they’ll get to see Pickett play in blue and gold one more time before he goes off to the NFL. Also elated is Addison, who has helped Pickett rewrite record books this season.
“I’m going to cherish it,” Addison said. “I got one more left with a Heisman candidate, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
It’s the fifth time Pitt has gone bowling in Narduzzi’s seven-year tenure as head coach. And its easily the biggest bowl game Pitt has played in since a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 2004.
“It’s another opportunity to rep the script,” Hallett said. “And that’s what we love to do.”