Kenny Pickett returns from leg injury to help Pitt win ACC opener, 24-19
Kenny Pickett fell to the ground, his plant leg bent back from the force of Georgia Tech defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, who crumpled awkwardly into him late in the first half of Pitt’s 24-19 victory.
Then, Pitt’s quarterback (and probably the team’s most irreplaceable player) grabbed his knee in apparent pain and rolled onto his back. He wasn’t getting up immediately.
That’s when several of Pickett’s teammates and coach Pat Narduzzi hovered over him, trying not to worry, while trainers determined the severity of the injury.
Finally, Pickett got to his feet and slowly walked off the field to the delight of many in the crowd of 34,284. He was OK. This time.
Nonetheless, after Pickett returned to the game in the second half and helped Pitt (2-1, 1-0) win its ACC opener Saturday, Narduzzi had this to say:
“We dodged a bullet, really.”
Nothing that happened at Heinz Field, positively or negatively, was as significant as Pickett avoiding catastrophic injury on Pitt’s day to recover from the Penn State fiasco.
Actually, Narduzzi was relieved and angry at the same time. The first thing he wanted to know was why Pickett wasn’t wearing the knee brace he uses in practice.
“Me and coach (Shawn) Watson (offensive coordinator) talked about it,” Narduzzi said. “ ‘Hey, Kenny doesn’t want to wear the knee brace.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care what Kenny wants to do. Kenny is going to wear that knee brace.’ I’ve got to be, I guess, the equipment police.
“He likes to go run and he wants to feel clean, but that ain’t going to happen. I’ll tape that thing to his leg.”
Pickett could smile about it later.
“My plant leg just got bent backwards,” said Pickett, who came out of the locker room for the second half wearing the brace. “It was kind of a weird thing that never happened to me before. I’m fine, though.
“I think coach is going to make me wear it to class now.”
Pickett said the brace doesn’t restrict his mobility. He wasn’t sacked before or after the injury, and he was effective in both halves, finishing 16 of 23 for 197 yards (7 of 11 for 71 and an interception with the brace).
Pitt jumped to a 21-0 lead in the first half on two touchdown runs by Qadree Ollison (31 and 8 yards) and another by Darrin Hall (5). Pickett completed a 60-yard flea flicker to Taysir Mack to set up Ollison’s second touchdown in the second quarter.
“Their heads were spinning a little bit; they didn’t know what was going on,” Pickett said of Georgia Tech’s defense. “We were getting chunk plays every play (6.2 yards per snap and 12.3 per completion). That’s how you know they’re off balance.”
For the third consecutive game, Pitt failed to score a touchdown in the second half, which put the burden on the defense to stop Georgia Tech’s flexbone spread option offense, no easy task.
Georgia Tech (1-2, 0-1) ran for 386 yards, with 99 of them coming on a late drive in the fourth quarter that set the final score. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall ran for 103 and two touchdowns, but he was ineffective through the air, misfiring on 9 of 15 attempts for 66 yards.
At the outset of the game, Pitt held Georgia Tech to three consecutive three-and-out series; overall, the Ramblin’ Wreck gave up the ball after five plays or fewer on eight of 12 possessions.
“That’s incredible,” Narduzzi said. “That offense is no joke. I’m just proud of our kids. They took coaching.”
Even after shutting out Georgia Tech in the first half, Pitt adjusted its defense after halftime. It led to a crucial interception by cornerback Phillipie Motley near the goal line with Pitt clinging to a 24-12 lead and 9 minutes, 29 seconds left in the game.
“We adjusted our coverage, which I was a little scared to death,” Narduzzi said. “Charlie Partridge (line coach) came up to me (at halftime) and said, ‘I want to give you a heads-up; we’re changing something. It’s drastic.’
“(Narduzzi said), ‘Oh, golly, really?’ A couple guys made some busts on it in a series, but it did help us in the long run. Phillipie got a pick on that coverage that we kind of tweaked.”
As it turned out, Pitt’s familiarity with the option offense — from playing Georgia Tech annually and watching video of two games against Navy — allowed for no surprises.
“A little bit of knowledge, maybe different adjustments, just flying to the ball, that’s all,” said safety Damar Hamlin, who had seven tackles, two for losses. “We all know what to expect when we play Georgia Tech.”
Middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who also had seven tackles, including a sack, said it’s just “assignment football.”
“As simple as that. You have to do your 1/11 th on the field.”
Defensive end Rashad Weaver was the third Pitt player with seven tackles, and he also recorded his third fumble recovery after entering the game with an NCAA-leading two. (Another was erased by a face mask penalty on defensive end Patrick Jones II.)
“That’s me not loafing and being around the ball,” Weaver said. “Disciplined and playing aggressive at the same time.
“Everyone focused on not being selfish. Some plays come to you and you make a play, and some you force to the other player. Being about the team and not being about yourself.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.