5 reasons Pitt is the ACC Coastal champion
While he was drying off from a victory shower at the hands of his players, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had plenty of thoughts running through his head.
Among them were Pitt’s 19 seniors, who survived the most recent coaching upheaval, stuck with the program under the new coach entering the 2015 season and now can celebrate the harvest of their persistence.
“It’s something everybody wants to be is a champion,” Narduzzi said after the victory at Wake Forest nailed down the ACC Coastal title. “Our guys never stopped believing.”
College football is paying attention. Pitt is 24th in the Associated Press poll and 25th in the Amway Coaches Poll.
It’s says something about Narduzzi’s program — and his desire to be 1-0 every week — that he and quarterback Kenny Pickett referenced the upcoming Miami game in the midst of the postgame jubliation.
Nothing that happens Saturday in south Florida matters in the standings, but the game is not meaningless. Narduzzi knows it and will hammer that home to his players.
The Panthers are in the midst of their second four-game winning streak this decade (both under Narduzzi), and it’s crucial Pitt maintains momentum. Also, a victory assures Narduzzi of three eight-victory seasons in his four years at Pitt.
Here are five reasons Pitt became a champion:
1. Depth is better
Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, who had 3½ sacks in the previous two games, did not play against Wake Forest because of an unspecified injury.
That meant coordinator Randy Bates has replaced three starters over the past five games.
Linebacker Quintin Wirginis and defensive tackle Keyshon Camp already were lost for the season, but Elias Reynolds has stepped in for Wirginis and played well. You can’t find redshirt freshman Albert Tucker on the depth chart, but there he is on the stat sheet with three tackles. On the line, Amir Watts, Jaylen Twyman, Rashad Wheeler and others have joined the rotation.
The defense, actually, has gotten stronger, keeping the opponent’s running game under 100 yards in three of the past five games and putting pressure on the quarterback.
End Patrick Jones II, who received more playing time with Hendrix out, had a sack and shared another tackle for loss. Linebacker Cam Bright, listed third on the depth chart, also had a sack.
Every coach wants to play as many players as possible. Narduzzi finally has enough quality depth to make it work.
2. Narduzzi coaches aggressively
It wasn’t the riskiest gamble, but Narduzzi kept his punter on the sideline in the third quarter on a fourth-and-1 call from the Wake Forest 45.
Pitt trailed, 10-6, and Narduzzi knew it was time to make a move. Qadree Ollison ran for 2 yards to keep the drive alive, and Pitt eventually scored to take the lead for good. Pitt is 7 for 14 in fourth-down conversion attempts this season.
3. Speaking of gambles …
Pitt continues to use unconventional methods to score, with left tackle Stefano Millin catching a backwards pass and carrying it 6 yards for a touchdown with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the game. Now, Millin could become a candidate for the Piesman Trophy that goes to a lineman who does more than block. It was won by former Pitt tackle Brian O’Neill two years ago.
“I was nervous,” Millin said. “I knew it was going to work, but my first thought was don’t drop it. I’m just glad they think I’m not athletic. Brian is probably 10 times the athlete I am.”
One nitpick: Why use trickery in a game that already had been decided? Now, the element of surprise is gone.
4. Pickett throws, hands off and more
It wasn’t enough that Pickett had a career game, completing 23 of 30 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
He almost scored on a 12-yard run, three plays before Millin’s touchdown. Earlier, he tried to shove George Aston forward while two defenders were dragging the fullback down.
The big news is the emergence of the passing game. Pickett completed one more pass than he did in the previous three games combined. He also stretched his interception-free streak to 110 attempts over 5 1/2 games.
In the past two games, Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack have combined for 14 receptions for 342 yards (a 24.4 average) and three touchdowns.
After rushing for a total of 1,230 yards in the previous three games, Pitt collected only 154 against Wake Forest.
“Every week is a different week,” Pickett said, “and you don’t know what the defense is going to give you.”
5. Deficits haven’t mattered
Pitt has trailed in four of its past five victories, three of those in the second half.
“We came in at halftime and we looked at each other,” Pickett said. “No one was screaming and yelling. We said, ‘All right, it’s a game right now. We have to go finish this thing.’ ”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.