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Henderson shines as Gold team defeats Blue at Pitt’s Spring Game, 23-14

Senior+cornerback+Avonte+Maddox+%2814%29+breaks+up+a+deep+pass+by+quarterback+Max+Browne+on+the+first+play+of+the+game.+Anna+Bongardino+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Senior cornerback Avonte Maddox (14) breaks up a deep pass by quarterback Max Browne on the first play of the game. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

Senior cornerback Avonte Maddox (14) breaks up a deep pass by quarterback Max Browne on the first play of the game. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

Senior cornerback Avonte Maddox (14) breaks up a deep pass by quarterback Max Browne on the first play of the game. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

By Ryan Zimba | Staff Writer

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The Pitt football team will enter the 2017 season without either star running back James Conner or quarterback Nathan Peterman, who both left the Panthers for the NFL Draft. But junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson showed why Pitt will still be an explosive offense by dazzling during Saturday’s annual Blue-Gold Spring Game at Heinz Field.

With both teams wearing Pittsburgh Steelers decals on their helmets to honor late Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, Henderson led the Gold Team to a 23-14 victory with his usual fireworks. The All-American speedster touched the ball only seven times on offense, but finished with 137 total yards and a touchdown.

“[Henderson has] always, in my eyes, been an explosive guy, and when he gets the ball in his hands he’s hard to hem up,” Gold Team head coach Andre Powell said.

While Henderson shone in the scrimmage, graduate transfer quarterback Max Browne struggled in his first on-field appearance for the Panthers.

Browne started for the USC Trojans for the first three games last season, but poor play led to first-year Sam Darnold taking over. He transferred to Pitt in January looking for a fresh start in his final year of eligibility, but during his first performance in a Pitt uniform, he completed only six of 18 passes for 48 yards in the first half of play.

His second half was better, but the late recovery still amounted to a sub-par final stat line in which he went 13-of-28 for 144 yards and a touchdown.

Max Browne (4) completed 13 of 28 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in his first action in a Panthers uniform. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

The more experienced Gold Team controlled the action from start to finish before the Blue Team’s late touchdown.

After a three-and-out by Blue to begin the game, Gold drove down the field on its opening possession to take an early seven-point lead. Henderson punctuated the drive with a 30-yard touchdown run, crossing up multiple defenders on his way to the end zone.

Browne’s bid to win Pitt’s starting job over Gold’s redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci got off to an ugly start, as he completed only two passes for minus-1 yard in the first quarter. The Blue Team’s receivers didn’t give him much help, dropping two passes on the offense’s first six plays. Still, Browne missed a couple of open receivers on deep balls down the field.

“That slow start kind of got us,” Browne said. “Ultimately, it was probably why we lost the game.”

The next possession, Gold got the ball back after another three-and-out from Blue. But the Blue defense managed to get a stop and forced a punt with little more than three minutes left in the first quarter. Blue again failed to get anything going on its third drive, as a third-down pass from Browne fell incomplete.

After another punt from each team, Gold had an opportunity to take a 14-point lead late in the first half. A fumbled snap on third down kept them out of the end zone, but Gold went up by 10 on a 32-yard field goal by redshirt freshman kicker Alex Kessman.

With less than a minute to go in the first half, Blue had a chance to cut into the deficit after a 24-yard completion from Browne to redshirt sophomore receiver Tre Tipton. Browne went for the end zone on third down and redshirt junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes hauled in the pass for what at first appeared to be Blue’s first touchdown of the game.

Araujo-Lopes couldn’t get a foot in bounds though, and the referees ruled the play incomplete. After the missed opportunity, Gold held a 10-0 lead at half.

The Gold defense stifled Blue in the first half, holding Browne and the Blue offense to 35 total yards. Blue’s offensive line allowed three sacks and the team converted none of its six third down opportunities.

“We’re trying to finish on the play more [than we did last season],” Avonte Maddox, Gold Team general manager and cornerback, said. “That’s what we’ve emphasized when we’re at practice.”

Henderson gave Gold another boost at the start of the third with a 54-yard dash down the sideline, making several defenders miss along the way. He cut back inside to the middle of the field and seemed destined for the end zone, but redshirt sophomore cornerback Dane Jackson tripped him up at the 7-yard line.

Two plays later, the Gold Team made its way back across the goal line, taking a 17-0 lead on a five-yard run by redshirt freshman running back Shawn Wood.

Blue finally managed some offense on the ensuing possession after a couple of big runs by sophomore Chawntez Moss. Redshirt freshman quarterback Thomas MacVittie finished the drive off for Blue, showcasing his speed by scampering 12 yards for a touchdown. But junior kicker Ian Troost missed the extra point, potentially hurting his chances of making the team as a walk-on and keeping the score at 17-6.

Chawntez Moss (26) was one of few brights pots for the Blue Team, rushing for 59 yards on eight carries at Saturday’s Spring Game. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

After a Blue received a punt, Gold redshirt junior linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu forced a fumble by redshirt freshman Ruben Flowers, the lone turnover of the game.

The Gold Team took over on the Blue 22-yard line, and Kessman tacked on a 38-yard field goal to give Gold a 20-6 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

Gold took a three-score lead on its next possession, a 13-play, 53-yard drive resulting in Kessman’s third field goal — this one from 35 yards.

“I was impressed with Kessman today,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Obviously with [kicker Chris] Blewitt gone, we’re going to need a kicker to come in and kick some game winners at times.”

Browne finally seemed to find his rhythm on Blue’s next possession, completing three straight passes for 72 yards. He capped the drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tipton, who dove to make the grab in the back of the end zone. A successful two-point conversion cut the deficit to nine, but it wasn’t enough, and Gold walked away with the 23-14 win.

Legendary Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald chats with Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi on the sideline at Pitt’s Spring Game. Anna Bongardino | Staff Photographer

Sloppiness characterized the game, but Narduzzi admitted afterward that he wasn’t expecting his team to play crisp and efficient football just yet.

“After 15 practices, you feel okay with where you are. I’m glad we still have 140 days left to clean a lot of things up,” Narduzzi said. “After a spring game I think there’s always that feeling in your stomach that we’re not good enough … right now we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Panthers begin the 2017 season against Youngstown State at Heinz Field Sept. 2.

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Henderson shines as Gold team defeats Blue at Pitt’s Spring Game, 23-14