Senior Day didn’t feel normal, by any means.
Although the team’s roster lists 23 seniors, Pitt only honored 10 players during the pre-game festivities, as the NCAA’s eligibility waiver has temporarily changed the concept of a “senior.” While players usually walk on the field with their families for the ceremonies, Pitt couldn’t carry on the tradition during the COVID-19 pandemic. Players came out by themselves this year, as their families provided video messages on the jumbotron.
But the players still received the best Senior Day gift of all — a dominant, 47-14 victory against Virginia Tech. The Panthers (5-4, 4-4 ACC) outscored the Hokies (4-5, 4-4 ACC) 31-0 over the game’s final 33 minutes.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of those guys and what they did today,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It was a gutsy win by our football team. They never blinked. They didn’t worry. They believed.”
Both teams played without an abundance of contributors. Pitt announced before the game that 16 players were unavailable due to COVID-related protocols, which wound up including sophomore wideout Jared Wayne, sophomore linebacker SirVocea Dennis and redshirt first-year safety Brandon Hill. First-year wide receiver Jordan Addison sat on the sideline, but didn’t wear a uniform.
Pitt redshirt senior cornerback Damar Hamlin, who led Pitt with 11 tackles on Saturday, said the Panthers have adjusted to lineup changes long before Saturday.
“It’s the next man up mentality,” Hamlin said. “It’s been that way since the beginning of the season, since last year. It’s a part of the game. You’re gonna lose some players due to injury, due to other stuff.”
Pitt had postponed its game last week after pausing all team activities for COVID-19 protocols. Virginia Tech had 12 players unavailable on Saturday, but didn’t specify if any were missing for COVID-related reasons. The Hokies played Miami last Saturday, who dealt with their own COVID-19 problems this week.
Pennsylvania released new COVID-19 guidance protocols on Tuesday that caused plenty of confusion leading up to Saturday. The state now requires that people wear masks when “outdoors with others who are not members of a person’s household and unable to maintain sustained physical distance.”
According to the state health website, the requirements seemed to include football players on the field. Coaches, athletes, cheerleaders and spectators all must wear face coverings if they can’t maintain social distancing from “persons outside of their household.” This includes when engaged in physical activity, including workouts and playing football.
Pitt announced on Friday that its football team would wear face coverings on the field and sideline on Saturday. It clarified a few hours later that the players would not have to have the coverings pulled up during a play.
The state order included an exemption for situations where facecovers would cause a medical condition like impeded breathing. Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Washington Post on Friday that this rule applied to football players on the field of play.
“Using football as an example, wearing a mask in addition to a mouth guard and a helmet would likely create a medical issue for the athlete,” Kensinger said. “For example, the CDC says that ‘wearing a mask with these types of protective equipment is not safe if it makes it hard to breathe.’”
With three of its starting five offensive linemen out, Pitt put together an impressive first drive, marching 71-yards downfield. Pitt couldn’t find the end zone, though, with senior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s pass sailing over junior wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis’ outstretched hands. The Panthers settled for a chip-in field goal to take the game’s first lead.
The Panthers notorious defensive line came to play on Saturday. After forcing a three-and-out on the Hokies’ opening drive, Pitt redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones II jumped on a fumble on the next defensive possession. The Panthers stopped a fourth down attempt on the Hokies’ third drive of the game, and forced another three-and-out on the fourth.
Pitt’s offense failed to capitalize on the many early opportunities the defense gave it. The Panthers went three-and-out on their second possession, threw an interception immediately after Jones II’s fumble recovery and stalled in the red zone again after the turnover on downs. Despite a nearly flawless period defensively, Pitt only led 6-0 after the first quarter.
Time and time again, Pitt’s defense has seen stellar performances marred by a few big plays. Virginia Tech couldn’t get anything going for most of the first half, but a perfect 55-yard touchdown throw from Hokies redshirt junior quarterback Hendon Hooker to junior wide receiver Tre Turner cut Pitt’s lead to 9-7.
It turned out Pitt’s defense responded better to opposing scores than Panther stops. Pickett marched his unit down the field, and sophomore running back Vincent Davis converted in the end zone for a bounce-back touchdown.
But Hooker had just started getting comfortable, finding sophomore wide receiver Tayvion Robinson for two big gains. He made his second touchdown connection of the day with Turner just a few plays later.
Pitt responded with one more air-dominant attack before halftime. The Panthers threw the ball on seven of the drive’s eight plays, and Pickett delivered a fading away lob pass to first-year wide receiver Jaylon Barden in the end zone. The rookie’s first career touchdown gave Pitt a 23-14 halftime lead.
Prior to Saturday, Pickett had never recorded more than 51 pass attempts in a college football game. He threw 40 passes in the first half alone against the Hokies.
Virginia Tech needed a quick momentum shifter to start the second half. Instead, it gave the Panthers a spark. Pitt senior cornerback Jason Pinnock soared over Robinson to snag his second interception of the season.
One Panther enjoyed himself quite a Senior Day. Redshirt senior placekicker Alex Kessman made all four of his field goal attempts on Saturday, including boots from 52 and 53 yards. The 53-yard kick in the second half made Kessman 12 for 18 in his career on 50+ yard field goal attempts — that 66.7% success rate is the best in NCAA history of kickers with over 15 attempts over 50 yards.
After Kessman’s long field goal, the Hokies put together a 74-yard drive to get in scoring position. The Pitt front seven flexed its muscles, stopping the Hokies three times on the one-yard line for a turnover on downs.
“Those are the money downs, the downs that change the game,” Panther redshirt senior defensive end Rashad Weaver said. “Nothing about their offense was too dynamic, they just have a lot of eye candy. If you see a little, you make a lot of plays. If you see a lot, you see nothing. We had good eye discipline that allowed us to go out there and make those stops.
The Panther offense completed the momentum swing with a four-play, 99-yard touchdown drive, finished with a 64-yard bomb from Pickett to graduate transfer wideout DJ Turner.
Turner, who stepped up for a career day against NC State when Addison left early with an injury, provided a huge boost in Addison’s absence on Saturday. The 5-foot-9 receiver pulled in a career-high 15 catches for 184 yards and a touchdown.
“Me and Kenny have a great connection, without me having to say anything to him,” Turner said. “It’s great to catch as many balls as I can or get as many yards as I can, but as long as I’m helping the team that’s all that matters to me.”
Turner said that Pickett had given him a gift last week, a picture frame for Turner’s baby boy, Trey, who recently turned a month old. Pickett got to meet the child before the game today, as Turner wanted to take a picture of the three of them to put in the frame.
“That was a special moment,” Pickett said. “Definitely an emotional day for everybody and a special one that we’ll all remember.”
The Panther defense didn’t budge, and Pickett converted a quarterback sneak at the goal line to take a 40-14 lead into the fourth quarter. Senior running back AJ Davis got a Senior Day touchdown before the night ended, capping off his 80-yard performance on 12 carries. Narduzzi revealed after the game that Davis had a root canal operation hours earlier.
“I was like, ‘we’re going to get him a root canal on game day,’ Narduzzi said. “That’s just the way the season has gone. I told him, ‘hey, you’re getting a root canal, we’re going to talk about your root canal after this game, after you win and rush for 100 — he didn’t quite get 100, but that’s adversity.”
The Panthers have one week to prepare for the fiercest opponent they’ve faced all year — traveling to play No. 4 Clemson next Saturday.
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