In the midst of a four-game losing streak, culminated by star safety Paris Ford opting out of the remainder of the season, the Pitt Panthers could easily have folded. Instead, the Panthers (4-4, 3-4 ACC) played arguably their most complete game Saturday, beating Florida State 41-17 in Tallahassee, Fla.
“It just tells you our kids believe in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Our kids had fun today, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Pitt announced before the game that one player wouldn’t be available for Saturday’s game against Florida State due to COVID-related protocols. It broke the team’s streak of five straight games without any COVID-related absences, but it certainly could’ve been worse, as Pitt’s men’s soccer and swimming and diving programs both put all team-related activities on hold due to COVID-related protocols in the past two weeks.
But the team still provided plenty of surprises in the waning hours before gametime. Two senior leaders that had played in Pitt’s loss to Notre Dame before the bye week didn’t appear on Pitt’s travel roster. Redshirt senior wide receiver Taysir Mack missed Saturday’s game for health reasons, and senior cornerback Jason Pinnock served a suspension, according to Panther Lair. Narudzzi said after the game that Pinnock will play next week “for sure.”
With Pinnock and Ford out of the picture, Pitt was without two key starters in the secondary. Panther fans did get some good news before gametime, though — senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who missed Pitt’s last two games with an ankle injury, would make his return for the Panthers on Saturday.
“Every day I was working towards this game,” Pickett said. “I was watching Florida State film early. This was the one I had circled, I was definitely playing. Nobody else thought I was playing, but I knew I was definitely gonna be able to play.”
While Pitt’s last two losses can’t be blamed on just the quarterback position, the difference between Pickett and first-year Joey Yellen was immediately clear on Saturday. Pickett found sophomore wide receiver Jared Wayne for a 49-yard third down conversion on the game’s opening drive, and senior Alex Kessman drilled a 51-yard field goal to put Pitt on the scoreboard first.
The shorthanded Pitt defense had trouble containing Florida State dual-threat quarterback Jordan Travis in the first quarter. Travis led a 75-yard drive on the Seminoles’ first possession, capped off by redshirt sophomore tight end Wyatt Rector’s creative goal-line touchdown sneak. After getting the ball back on his own five-yard line, Travis took a quarterback keeper 88 yards to the house for a 14-3 lead, the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in Florida State history. Panther redshirt freshman defensive back Brandon Hill, replacing Ford for the first start of his career, missed an open-field tackle on the play.
“I feel like that kind of woke me up a little bit,” Hill said. “I was a little flustered a little bit, but as soon as the game went on it slowed down for me, and I played well.”
Facing an early 11-point deficit on the road, Pitt desperately needed to shift the momentum. Sophomore cornerback A.J. Woods, taking Pinnock’s place, provided the spark by coming down with his first-career interception on a dangerous Travis throw.
The Panthers capitalized on the prime field position. Pickett completed a 26-yard pass to first-year wideout Jordan Addison to get the Panthers in the red zone. With a third and goal play from the one-yard line, Pitt usually lets Pickett sneak it in. But with Pickett still nursing an ankle injury, the Panthers called redshirt sophomore Nick Patti’s number. Patti took a quarterback draw into the end zone for the first rushing score of his career, and the Panthers first touchdown since the third quarter of their last trip to Florida, a 31-19 loss at Miami.
“We didn’t want to run Kenny too much,” Narduzzi said. “We tried to keep him safe and obviously we have a lot of faith in Nick Patti.”
The Panthers notorious defensive front found its footing after giving up the long touchdown run. Redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones II sacked Travis on fourth and seven, and redshirt senior defensive end Rashad Weaver stopped a Seminole run on fourth and two, forcing two turnovers on downs in the second quarter.
“[Travis] was jumping around in the pocket all over the place,” sophomore linebacker SirVocea Dennis said. “We have a good front four. We try to get after him, and that’s what we try to do as a defense, and that’s what we did.”
Pitt’s quarterbacks continued to thrive on the ground. Narduzzi sent Patti on the field again on first and goal, and Patti ran in for his second touchdown in as many offensive plays to put the Panthers back in front. Pitt found the red zone on its next possession as well, and Pickett scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown. 21 straight points from the Panthers gave them a 24-14 lead.
Florida State stopped the bleeding with a 47-yard field goal as the first half ended, aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty by Pitt redshirt senior cornerback Damar Hamlin. He’d redeem himself soon after.
Travis didn’t appear after the first half, listed as out for an undisclosed injury. The Seminoles subbed in redshirt junior quarterback James Blackman, and Hamlin picked him off on the third play from scrimmage of the second half. Sophomore running back Vincent Davis turned the takeaway into points for the Panthers — his four-yard touchdown rush extended Pitt’s lead to 14.
The Seminoles benched Blackman for the rest of the night, but true freshman quarterback Chubba Purdy didn’t do much better. The Pitt defensive line kept providing nonstop pressure, and Pitt’s secondary locked the Seminoles’ receivers up. The Panther defense finished with seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss and three takeaways.
“That was a big emphasis we had, just bring the swag back to our defense,” Dennis said. “Just be ourselves, have fun. That’s what I felt like we did out there.”
A 13-play, 12-minute drive from Pickett and company gave the defense some well-deserved rest. A 19-yard reception from Addison appeared to put the Panthers in the end zone, but officials overturned the call on the field and ruled him short. The Seminoles knew what was coming, stopping Patti on three straight rushing attempts from the one-yard line, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal.
Despite having the touchdown taken away, Addison put together another impactful game as Pickett’s favorite target. He caught all eleven balls thrown his way for 127 yards, his second 100+ yard outing of the season.
“He’s a guy I put a lot of work in with in the offseason,” Pickett said. “In practice, I was making sure I got the reps I needed, and those reps were definitely with him.”
The lead looked about out of reach, but Pitt would get one more opportunity to celebrate in the fourth quarter. Purdy threw deep across the middle, and Hill swooped in for the interception, returning it 50 yards for the game-sealing score. The pick-six put the finishing touch on a 24-point blowout.
“It felt great,” Hill said. “I saw it was underthrown a little bit, trusted my instincts and got escorted to the end zone by good blocks from my teammates.”
Pickett didn’t put up monstrous stats Saturday, but he threw the ball accurately and made smart decisions, completing 21 of 27 passes for 210 yards and no interceptions. He made his biggest impact just by stepping on the field, Dennis said.
“He’s our leader, and he’s a great leader at that,” Dennis said. “Just to have our biggest leader out there, it means a lot, and he played his butt off tonight. With him just wanting to come back and play his game and play his best for our team, that’s a big thing. I have the utmost respect for Kenny and I love him for that.”
The victory is Pitt’s first since September, and brings the team back to .500 on the season. The Panthers play the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on the road next Saturday, but for now the team can appreciate its return to the win column.
“It’s not easy to go on the road and get any ACC win,” Narduzzi said. “I’m just awfully proud of our football team for the way they continue to fight.”
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