Pitt dominates Albany, 33-7, in opener
Pitt players arrived for the first game of the 2018 season Saturday at Heinz Field like businessmen going to work. No smiles, lips pressed tight, their stride purposeful, suit jackets buttoned .
And, grasped tightly in senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis’ fist, a black suitcase that carried the symbol of what the Panthers hope will be defensive dominance throughout the season — a bone, actually, a cow femur, painted blue with the unit’s motto, “Unchained.”
No gimmick, it will go to the defensive player who made the most game-changing plays in Pitt’s 33-7 victory against Albany and every game for the rest of the season. As a senior co-captain, Wirginis had the honor of carrying it into Heinz Field on Saturday.
The game was won early, with Pitt jumping out to a 19-0 lead with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left in the first quarter, thanks to special teams and the offensive unit.
Wide receiver Maurice Ffrench scored twice — a 91-yard game-opening kickoff return and a 9-yard run on a jet sweep — and quarterback Kenny Pickett scrambled 5 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, he hit wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes for two touchdowns (3 and 42 yards), and Pitt had enough cushion to ease up in the second half, even though it’s a lapse coaches won’t ignore in their game review.
But the defense kept up the pressure on Albany, an overmatched FCS team, and allowed Pitt to win easily even though the offense was held scoreless after halftime.
Wirginis, a co-captain, said it all stemmed from attitude and focus.
“The feeling that we had (Friday) in our walk-throughs and (Saturday) morning, it’s really focused,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a little dangerous when everybody is quiet. Do we have the energy we need? But that’s not what it was. We had the energy, but we were just locked in.
“It’s quiet, but you can feel the energy. It’s like the calm before the storm.”
The idea is to have the same approach and mindset, whether the opponent plays in the Colonial Athletic Association (Albany) or the Big Ten (Penn State, the visitor to Heinz Field next Saturday). Doesn’t matter.
“We’re not playing up to any team. We’re not playing down to any team,” Wirginis said. “We’re playing to our standard.”
Coach Pat Narduzzi liked what he saw in the first half when Pickett completed his first 13 passes, though the coach confessed he didn’t know that. But the second half was sloppy — Pickett had a tipped ball intercepted and lost a fumble — and it was enough to send most of the crowd of 34,486 home early.
“I told them at halftime, it was 0-0,” he said. “We weren’t taking the foot off the gas.”
But he admitted, “I can say that all I want, talking to a bunch of 18-, 19-year-olds. They got their minds made up. Was that part of it? Sometimes, there is a letdown.
“I don’t think we came out in the second half and played the way you’d like.”
In Pickett’s case, he might have been trying too hard, instead of not trying hard enough. In the third quarter, he attempted to hurdle an Albany defender and fumbled as he was sailing through the air.
“The first thing I said to Kenny at the beginning of the second quarter on the sidelines when he was warming up,” Narduzzi said, ” ‘Listen, you do not take a hit and you go down.’
“So what does he do? He goes up. He must have misunderstood down and up. But he’s a competitor. He said, ‘Coach, I’m trying to get a first down.’ ”
Before the game, Narduzzi noticed the same thing Wirginis did.
“A little different focus than I’ve seen,” the four-year Pitt coach said. “I even texted Heather (Lyke, athletic director), ‘These guys are locked in a little bit different.’
“Every year you have a different team. I like where we are right now.”
Then, in the spirit of what is becoming a Narduzzi trend, he added, with the hint of a promise, “We’re going to make our best improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.
“I told them afterwards, we’ve got a lot of things to clean up. Shoot, offensively and defensively.”
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of awarding The Bone — the defensive players probably would appreciate the capitalization — to a deserving player.
Tough call. Defensive tackle Keyshon Camp had two sacks, and linebacker Anthony McKee, tackle Rashad Wheeler and end Rashad Weaver had one each. Cornerback Damarri Mathis intercepted a pass in the end zone and free safety Damar Hamlin returned one 79 yards to set up a touchdown. Linebacker Saleem Brightwell led the team with five tackles, even though he didn’t start, and strong safety Dennis Briggs came into the box and was a force against the run.
When Wirginis’ watched video Sunday, he’ll probably like what he sees.
“Guys were playing with some energy,” he said. “It will be a competition to see who gets it. That’s the way it should be.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.