PITTSBURGH — Pitt had scored just three offensive touchdowns over the three games leading into the Boston College matchup Thursday night, and while 24 points may not seem like much, the three touchdowns were certainly a step up.
A 24-16 win at Acrisure Stadium Thursday night sent the seniors off with a final home win, a rare moment of goodness in a season that’s been filled with low points, and Nate Yarnell flashed potential as — perhaps — a quarterback to build around heading into the 2024 season.
At 3-8 (2-5 ACC), Pitt has just one more game left this season. And while a win over Boston College, which was expected to be a certainty just a few months ago, isn’t setting the world on fire, it was a nice win nonetheless.
“First of all, just happy for our kids in there,” Pat Narduzzi said following the game. “They have worked. Every day they come to work, and things haven’t gone our way in a lot of games, but I couldn’t be prouder of our football team.
“Love those guys in there. The seniors, all their families; that was a win for the seniors. And the parents were so good last night at Senior Night. It was a heck of a way to finish out our home season here in Pittsburgh.”
Yarnell Passes the Eye Test
11-of-19 for 207 yards with a touchdown isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. But of all the Pitt quarterbacks to take snaps this season, and there have been a few now, Yarnell looked the most comfortable.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that of all four quarterbacks to play in the Frank Cignetti Jr. system, Yarnell looked the most comfortable.
He was cool and composed in the pocket, he threw with touch and anticipation, and most importantly, his sound decision-making didn’t lead to any turnovers against the Eagles’ defense. It was like night and day seeing how Yarnell worked through his progressions to hit wide receivers in stride and move the chains.
It sounds like a very basic concept, but Pitt has greatly missed that sort of play this season. It was Rodney Hammond Jr. who stole the show, but Yarnell led the offense to a 400-yard showing. And he didn’t turn the ball over — and that’s huge for Narduzzi.
“Just protecting the ball,” Narduzzi said. “Again, we still have a lot of confidence in Christian (Veilleux). He will be ready to go, and he is going to learn from his mistakes. Sunday, we said we were going with Nate, and Nate took all the snaps with the ones all week.
“We just felt like he would go in and make really good decision, which he did today. He protected the ball and gives you a chance to win a football game.”
Yarnell has completed 16-of-27 pass attempts (59%) for 330 yards with two touchdowns this season. He’s completed 26-of-41 pass attempts (63%) for 525 yards with three touchdowns over the last two seasons.
He had only played Western Michigan (and two snaps against UCLA) and some garbage time against Notre Dame and Syracuse this season, and the question was whether or not Yarnell would be able to replicate his success in a “real” game. He answered it.
“Nate is a good football player, as we know, and he is 2-0 as a starter,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve told you all along since August that we had faith in really all three quarterbacks, but the guys have to protect the ball and give us a chance to win. It was Nate tonight.”
Narduzzi all but confirmed that Yarnell will start the season finale against Duke next weekend, and it will be an opportunity to go play a solid Blue Devils’ defense and show that even when an opponent has game tape on him, he can succeed. It’s a big opportunity to show that he can be the quarterback of the future.
Rodney Hammond Jr. Misuse Highlighted
Rodney Hammond Jr. didn’t receive a single carry until the second quarter. He had just 20 yards at the halftime break.
He finished with a career-high 145 yards and the game-winning 66-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter. It was a dominant performance, one in which Hammond got better as he received more carries through the game, that many expected to see more of this season.
15 carries were the most of the season for Hammond, who has received single digit carries in five games this season. It’s been a mystifying season of running back usage.
C’Bo Flemister has been lauded for his leadership all season, being named a captain, but it doesn’t take much watching to see that Hammond is far and away the best running back on the Pitt roster. Even Daniel Carter has been utilized over Hammond at times this season.
Hammond got going in the second half, and Narduzzi said that while it’s what Pitt expects out of Hammond, it was a team effort.
“Well, you have to block them,” Narduzzi said. “Our guys did a good job blocking. I think it’s something you learn. Kenny Johnson came in, and on that big run, that go-ahead touchdown, Kenny Johnson came in and had just an unbelievable block and sprung Rodney.
“So, Rodney didn’t do it all by himself, but Rodney looked great tonight, and that’s what we expect out of Rodney.”
Hammond is the best back on the roster, one capable of being a difference-maker, and it shouldn’t have taken until the 11th game of the season to really get him rolling. It’s malpractice that Hammond hasn’t been a focal point of the Pitt offense this season, but it shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose. The offense has been a disaster all season.
Three offensive touchdowns against Boston College equaled the offensive output over the previous three games. At least Hammond is a bonafide difference-maker at running back.
Nearly 10 yards per carry, 91 yards after contact (6.5 yards after contact per rush), three runs of 10 yards, two of 15 and seven missed tackles. The vision and the ability to force defenders to miss is unlike anything offered by another Pitt running back.
Three Good Safeties
P.J. O’Brien Jr. recorded his third interception of the season, Donovan McMillon racked up 13 tackles and Javon McIntyre continued to serve as the leader of the secondary. It was a good game for all three safeties.
McIntyre took 64 of 71 defensive snaps, McMillon took 60 and while O’Brien took just 21 snaps, he made the most of it with an interception.
“P.J. has really grown a lot,” Narduzzi said. “I think it might be his third pick of the year. Especially in the second half of the season.
That was a great play down at the — we had some horrible field position that third quarter. I think it was — what was it? Third quarter we were at the minus 10 to minus 2 to minus 3. We were coming out. That was some brutal field position that they had, but when we gave them the ball at 25, they did a good job moving the ball.”
McIntyre, who missed an early tackle, rebounded beautifully throughout the remainder of the game. He recorded eight tackles (four solo), a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. McMillon found himself in on just about every tackle — working his way to 99 tackles this season, which is second in the ACC.
McIntyre is the do-it-all safety, who seems like he’s just waiting to unleash a playmaker ability considering he’s been close to a number of forced turnovers this season, and McMillon and O’Brien offer different levels of versatility in the pass game and the run game.
And all three are returning next season, the veterans who will help a young cornerback’s room grow into their roles in the defense.
Dayon Hayes Was Excellent
Hayes has been close so many times but unable to bring down the opposing quarterback in the backfield. He didn’t have the problem against Boston College.
He finished the night with six tackles (five solo), three tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and a quarterback hit — and it may be just the launchpad he needs for one more season. Does Hayes have unfinished business at Pitt?
“Yeah, I do,” he said with a grin. “I ain’t leaving yet.”
Pat Narduzzi and the defensive coaching staff will certainly welcome Hayes back next season, able to form a starting duo with Samuel Okunlola (who recorded a sack himself Thursday night, one of six team sacks), and it should be one of the strengths of the defense. Hayes was certainly a strength against Boston College.
“Dayon had a good game,” Narduzzi said following the win. “When you get a chance, I think we had a few sacks. I don’t know how many sacks we had. Six sacks.
“Again, it’s hard to get sacks when they have 66 rushes, but we were able to get to the quarterback and early in the game, and that was good. I think we had three early in the first or second quarter. Those were critical.”
Hayes now has 40 tackles (23 solo), 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble, four pass breakups and a lot of pressures, hurries and quarterback hits despite the low sack totals. Hayes has been better than his individual statistics indicate this season, and he has one more game this season to improve upon those. And he’s coming off his best game — from a production standpoint — in quite some time.
Pitt will 100% be a better team next season with Hayes in the lineup.
Finish Strong Against Duke
There isn’t anything — at least when it comes to postseason opportunity — to play against Duke next weekend. But if Narduzzi has said anything all season, it’s that his team hasn’t ever quit.
And listening to the likes of Yarnell and Hammond and Hayes and McMillon, there’s certainly a desire to finish the season on a high note. It’s not quite the five-game win streak with a Sun Bowl win that last season’s squad put together but finishing the season strong is all this season’s squad can do.
It’s been a disaster of a season, but the level of compete is still there. There’s pride on the line — and some personnel decisions when it comes to the 2024 season — and that’s gotta count for something. All you can do on a 3-8 squad is continue to put good tape on film and compete.
Duke may or may not have star quarterback Riley Leonard under center when the Panthers head to Durham, N.C. next weekend, but it doesn’t matter if he’s in the lineup or not, Pitt just has to show up and do its job. One more chance to play in 2023.