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Kevin Gorman: Kenny Pickett’s perfect 1st half leads Pitt in opener

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, September 1, 2018 10:32 p.m.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Kenny Pickett dives for a first down but fumbles against Albany in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Kenny Pickett throws against Albany in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Kenny Pickett receiver a snap against Albany in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.

It was an accidental nickname for Kenny Pickett, one Pat Narduzzi dubbed in defense of the Pitt quarterback.

It wasn’t supposed to stick but rather serve as a reminder Pickett was but a sophomore who would make his share of mistakes.

For the first half of the season opener, Kenny Perfect was a perfect fit.

In only his second start for Pitt, Pickett picked apart Albany by completing 13 of 13 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown and running for another score on the way to a 33-7 victory Saturday at Heinz Field.

The nickname might have been an accident, but Pickett’s near-perfect first half wasn’t. Maurice Ffrench spotted Pitt a 7-0 lead by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and safety Damar Hamlin returned an interception 79 yards to the Albany 19 before Pickett ever took the field.

Pickett scored on a 5-yard run for a 13-0 lead, then completed five passes to four receivers on a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive to make it 19-0 at 4:42 of the first quarter.

An admitted perfectionist who said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson demands precision, Pickett threw touchdown passes of 3 and 42 yards to Rafael Araujo-Lopes in the second quarter for a 26-point halftime lead.

“Since I’ve been young, you chase perfection and you find excellence,” Pickett said. “That’s something I want to continue as my career moves on, really, just being as efficient of a quarterback as I can be.”

The Panthers professed they had no idea Pickett was perfect through the first two quarters. To be fair, he did have a failed 2-point conversion pass that didn’t count toward his passing totals and another incomplete throw negated by an Albany illegal substitution penalty.

“He’s so far ahead for how old he is, you wouldn’t even know that he’s a true sophomore quarterback out there with only, what, two starts now,” Pitt senior running back Qadree Ollison said.

“You wouldn’t even know it if you walked into the stadium and watched the game. You would think this kid has started in 20-plus games. He does a tremendous job leading the offense and running the whole show. At the same time, you still know that he’s only a sophomore, that he’s an 18-, 19-year-old kid. You don’t expect him to be perfect.”

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Pickett’s pursuit of perfection had the second-half hiccups that Narduzzi anticipated when he made the Kenny Perfect comment.

As poised as Pickett appeared in his leading Pitt to an upset of No. 2 Miami in his first college start and as perfect as his passing was in his first start in a season opener, his second-half had hiccups: a fumble, an interception and a first-ever slide that sent a shiver through the stadium.

No wonder Narduzzi quipped, “I didn’t know he was 13 of 13, but he could be a lot better.”

For one, Pickett learned he can’t run over linebackers. On a third-and-10 at the Albany 37, he tried to leap over Bethel Park graduate Levi Metheny when Eli Mencer hit Pickett high and forced a fumble.

“I think I might have to retire that move,” Pickett said.

With a four-touchdown lead and Penn State visiting next week, Narduzzi had warned Pickett not to take unnecessary hits. No wonder Pickett avoided Narduzzi, walking away and pretending not to hear him screaming about not knowing the difference between up and down.

When Pickett threw the interception on a tipped pass, Narduzzi decided he didn’t want his quarterback to dwell on a negative play all week. So he put Pickett back into the game, only to see his slide to end a 12-yard run cause a hush to fall over Heinz Field when Pickett grabbed his leg.

Turns out, his right calf locked up with a cramp.

Pickett returned to finish 16 of 22 for 154 yards, adding 42 yards rushing on six carries. His second half was nowhere near as impressive as his first, let alone perfect. But that’s the promising part, as Pickett showed signs there is room for improvement.

“I don’t know if Kenny was as sharp as I’ve seen him,” Narduzzi said. “I think he was about 75 percent. I thought he played OK. I’ve seen him play a lot better. I’ve seen him be more accurate. It’s been a long time since he’s played and he hasn’t played a lot of football so I expect to see a sharper Kenny next week.”

Pickett proved that he doesn’t have to be Kenny Perfect for Pitt. But he also showed in the second half he has to be better than Kenny OK for the Panthers to beat Penn State, which needed overtime to avoid an upset against Appalachian State.

Pitt will follow Pickett in his pursuit of perfection, knowing it can still find excellence if he falls short of living up to his new nickname.

Click here for complete Pitt coverage.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or
via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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