Pitt’s football team returned to action on Saturday and cruised to a somewhat unexpected 47-14 win over Virginia Tech. Sure, most of us felt that Pitt could compete. But winning the game by 33? No one could have called that.
Now, I will admit that, like most of you, I cringed a bit in hearing that Pitt would have 16 guys out of action, due to COVID protocols. We expected to hear some guys would miss the game as last week’s game with Georgia Tech was canceled after both teams apparently had COVID issues. But in all, 16 players missed the game (and for full disclosure, Virginia Tech was missing some players, too).
We never really get full confirmation on who misses these game due to a COVID issue, injury, or something else, but the Panthers were missing several key players, including three starters on the offensive line, defensive standout Sir’Vocea Dennis, and their best offensive weapon in wide receiver Jordan Addison, among others. That would seem to raise some alarms in what was supposed to be a close game. But, as it unfolded, the team didn’t miss a beat.
The offensive line not only did a great job in pass protection but also opened up holes for a rare strong rushing effort. A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis totaled 152 yards and two touchdowns, with both averaging a combined 6.3 yards per carry. I was shocked to hear that A.J.’s touchdown was actually his first one of the year. It’s just been a very underwhelming game for those guys.
Now, if you’re like me, you start to think if we’ll see these guys a bit more, even when starters return. The fact is, the line looked pretty strong today and that’s a unit that struggled to get the ground game going.
Addison? He was effectively replaced by wide receiver D.J. Turner who turned in a career day with 15 catches and 184 yards, nearly breaking school and ACC records for catches. Included in that was a huge 64-yard touchdown catch. Quarterback Kenny Pickett, by the way, threw for a near career-best 404 yards, completing 35 of 52 passes and throwing two touchdowns while rushing for a third. Simply put, one of the best games of his career. Other than an uncharacteristic sloppy interception, it was an incredible game for him and will increase the chatter he’ll head to the NFL after the season.
Look, Addison’s plenty valuable. He’s been one of the best receivers in the entire conference this year as a true freshman. But you might recall that Turner stepped up in a big way when Addison was injured in the NC State game earlier this year. In that game, Turner had eight catches for 186 yards. Otherwise, he’s been mostly pedestrian. He contributed a bit in the first two games but since then, aside from that NC State game, he had a total of six catches in the other five games.
Does that mean he’s been underutilized? You can make that case. But there are also only so many plays to be made and the focus today simply shifted from Addison to Turner. If Turner didn’t have this kind of day, Addison might have. I don’t know — it’s a tough call. If nothing else, though, the Panthers should at least be going to Turner a bit more even when Addison returns. The amount of tackles he broke today was insane and, despite his small size, he simply made too many plays today to ignore. Pitt has no choice but to give him more opportunities in the remaining games as he’s clearly earned them.
Plenty of offense, obviously, but don’t underestimate what the Panthers’ defense did. Now, the Hokies moved the ball pretty well, piling up more than 430 total yards. But Pitt also got plenty of stops, including three 4th down stops (with one big one at the goal line), along with a key interception by Jason Pinnock. The Panthers did give up a couple of big plays but, for the second week in a row, really put together a strong performance.
They’re starting to look like the defense we saw earlier in the year. Does some of that have to do with competition? Probably. After all, those early performances came against Austin Peay, Syracuse, and Louisville — all pretty bad teams. It’s clear that these guys have struggled against the better competition they’ve faced. These last two came against another bad team in Florida State and a really up and down Virginia Tech team. Still, the defense is playing really well again and, despite the competition, you take that.
Oh, and kicker Alex Kessman had an incredible day with four field goals, including two beyond 50 yards. That’s going to get lost in a 33-point win but it shouldn’t. He was instrumental in giving Pitt an early 9-0 lead and has just been phenomenal.
I know fans have talked about a lot of the seniors and who we might see return with the COVID exception giving players another year of eligibility. I have no idea where Kessman is in that discussion. He’s proven himself at this level but would another year really improve his stock anymore as he fights for one of the few kicking jobs in the NFL? If anything, I almost wonder if his stock could only be hurt by returning if he struggles. But if the Panthers found a way to get him back for another year, that would be an incredible benefit.
I said it before but these were two 4-4 teams coming into the game that both could easily been 6-2 with three one-point losses between them. Neither, as I said in the preview, is elite. We know that from some of the losses they’ve had. But I think that, after today, Pitt certainly looks better than their modest 5-4 record. They’re not great — let’s be clear about that. But there are playmakers on both side of the ball and while they have yet to achieve the landmark win you wanted to see this year, this is not a bad football team, folks. As I said coming in, a handful of more points and these could have been ranked teams entering the game.
Next up for the Panthers is another massive challenge in Clemson. But whether that game even happens is probably a bit up in the air. The Panthers, we know, have had COVID issues and Clemson’s game with Florida State today was canceled. If the game is played, though, Pitt will obviously have a tough challenge ahead.