Rodney Hammond Jr. stepped down off the platform deep inside the bowels of Acrisure Stadium and dapped up the grinning 6-foot-6 kid waiting his turn to speak.
The tall, skinny kid standing at the ready didn’t have a beard the last time he faced the media following a football game, but his name was uttered with the same sort of reverence. Hammond proclaimed him the “MVP” as the two quickly embraced, giving up the stage for the quarterback who has now gone 2-0 in career starts at Pitt.
But Nate Yarnell certainly will not accept that MVP moniker himself. It’s a team game.
“They say that, but I relied on those guys so much tonight,” Yarnell said Thursday night following Pitt’s win against Boston College. “Offensive line played absolutely fantastic, Rodney had a great game, and obviously sealed it at the end with the long run, I was really excited watching him run that in. Defense stepped up, big stops there to end the game. They’re calling me MVP, but I definitely relied upon them a lot.”
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 Hammond 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 Pat Narduzzi.
“Nate is a good football player, as we know, and he is 2-0 as a starter,” Narduzzi said Thursday night after the win. “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.”
Yarnell stepped into his first start as the Pitt quarterback since a win against Western Michigan last September in Kalamazoo, Mi., and unlike last time, Yarnell didn’t run a skeleton offense. The playbook was wide open, and his comfortability was clear to see. He completed 11-of-19 pass attempts for 207 yards and a touchdown — adding another touchdown on the ground.
It’s not a stat line that really jumps off the page, but it was ultra-efficient. Yarnell didn’t turn the ball over, which is the No. 1 ask in a Frank Cignetti Jr. offense. He stood in the pocket, went through his progressions and hit his receivers to move the sticks and score. It was the most comfortable I’ve seen a Pitt quarterback look this season.
“It’s my job — doesn’t matter if I’m third, fourth or fifth string — to be ready to go in the game and all season, I made sure I was prepared for this moment so when my number was called, I would be ready,” Yarnell said.
Hammond said that the confidence in the Pitt offense, despite the struggles this season, is so great that even he’d be able to stand back there and deliver. But Yarnell’s individual confidence is still on a whole different level.
“He was very confident, the whole week it seemed like he knew what was going on, he knew he was gonna go out there and win this game for us like he did,” Hammond said Thursday night after the win. “He was telling me the whole day he was ready, like, like let’s go win it.”
Yarnell dropped back 20 times against Boston College, pressured on 45% of those drop backs, and that’s where the majority of his incompletions arose. But he didn’t turn the ball over when pressured, and he wasn’t caught just standing in the pocket unaware either — he didn’t take a sack.
He worked the intermediate passing game often, averaging nearly 12 yards per target, and he still got the ball out quickly — just about 2.8 seconds from when the ball was snapped.
In working the deep ball, Yarnell completed 2-of-3 pass attempts over 20 yards, for 82 yards and a touchdown. But he was also effective in the short game (4-of-5 for 32 yards) and intermediate game (4-of-7 for 81 yards). And he was especially effective in play-action opportunities, completing 6-of-7 pass attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Yarnell isn’t exactly a dual threat, with just one scramble attempt, but he’s more than athletic enough to make reads and take off with the ball to move the sticks — and force opposing defenses to respect his ability to make throws on the run, too. His biggest play of the night — his favorite — came just standing in the pocket.
It was play-action, a play fake to C’Bo Flemister, and as Yarnell stood in the pocket, a hard pump fake fooled a couple of Boston College defenders over the middle. It opened up Bub Means downfield and Means just lofted a 25-yarder to Means, which turned into a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown to retake the lead.
“Offensive line blocked great there, I pump faked it, I saw the hook backer — I think they may have messed up the coverage there, dropped into that first window there for Bub, pump faked it and I knew I could get him behind,” Yarnell said.
“I love spreading the ball to the receivers, it was a lot of fun.”
The pump fake by @NateYarnell 🎯
The speed by @twoplayaBub 💨
61-yard TD 🙌 Pitt retakes the lead
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) November 17, 2023
Yarnell liked the passing touchdown more than the rushing touchdown, a 4-yard dive in which Yarnell saw the Boston College defensive end squeeze, so he pulled the ball and made a dash for the end zone — and it worked. He ran the ball five times for 24 yards, four of which were designed run opportunities.
But despite the success, winning for the first time in weeks and scoring as many offensive touchdowns as the previous three weeks combined, Yarnell only wants to build upon what he showed Thursday night. It’s all he can do at this point.
“There’s definitely a lot to improve, even in the field, some of those incompletions I knew right away that I should’ve went somewhere else,” Yarnell said. “There’s a lot to improve, so I’m excited to get an opportunity next week to show that.”
Narduzzi didn’t say directly that Yarnell will start against Duke in the season finale next weekend, but he pretty much all but confirmed it. Yarnell, who is the third starting quarterback this season, has earned another chance to show what he’s capable of. And Pitt, as it tries to determine if next season’s starting quarterback is on the roster, owes as much to Yarnell.
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.
“I’m just so grateful for the opportunity,” Yarnell said. “I came to Pitt, I love Pitt and I just really enjoy getting on the field.”
Pitt — and very likely, Yarnell — will be back in action for the final time this season against Duke in Durham, N.C. next weekend. And it will be the final time the Panthers play football for nine months. Yarnell will have the opportunity to make that time a little more bearable with another good performance.