The Pitt football team’s heartbreaking 20-14 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday brought their season record to 4-7, while also disqualifying them from bowl contention for the first time since 2007.
The loss also overshadowed what should have been an exciting occasion — the emergence of first-year quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Pickett got his shot when he replaced redshirt sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci after an interception near the end of the first quarter. He performed admirably in the remaining three quarters, completing 15 of 23 passes for 242 yards— more than DiNucci amassed in a game all season.
While this was not Pickett’s inaugural appearance, it was easily his most successful. He first took the field for one play against Syracuse in week six after redshirt senior Max Browne suffered a season-ending injury, and backup DiNucci lost his helmet and was temporarily sidelined — effectively burning his redshirt.
His next showing came against North Carolina State, when head coach Pat Narduzzi made the much-maligned decision to thrust the young signal-caller into a close game. Pickett’s final stat-line that game was an unimpressive 5-13 for 61 yards.
For the Panthers’ next three games, junior running back Darrin Hall took the pressure off the passing game. DiNucci performed competently enough to maintain the starting job, so Pickett appeared to be relegated to a consistent backup role.
But Virginia Tech successfully eliminated Pitt’s rushing attack, stopping Hall for just 4 yards on 15 carries. This forced the Panthers to take to the air, where DiNucci did have initial success. He completed four of his first seven passes for 54 yards and led the team to a touchdown in the first quarter.
When he threw an interception on the ensuing drive, though, Narduzzi had apparently seen enough. He elected to put Pickett under center for the team’s opening second quarter drive.
This time, Pickett made the most of the opportunity. While he wasn’t responsible for any touchdowns, Pickett displayed formidable accuracy, completing 65 percent of his passes compared to DiNucci’s season average of 55.7 percent. Most importantly, he showed poise.
Pinned on their own 25-yard line and down 20-14 with one minute remaining, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-4 with the game on the line. Pickett stepped up into the pocket and delivered a strike to redshirt senior wide receiver Jester Weah. The pass was just outside the reach of Hokie redshirt senior cornerback Brandon Facyson, and Weah plowed over a defender and outran the defense on his way to the end zone.
The 74-yard pass was called a touchdown on the field, which would have given the Panthers a chance to win with an extra point. The exciting, unlikely game-winner would have been the icing on the cake for Pickett’s big day.
Instead, instant replay showed that Weah was a yard shy of the end zone. Virginia Tech stuffed Pitt on the next four plays, and what was nearly an incredible victory turned into a demoralizing loss for the Panthers.
While Narduzzi’s methods of playing quarterbacks is unpredictable and puzzling, Pitt fans can take solace in the performance of Pickett. The first-year quarterback’s quality performance on Saturday was the culmination of his ascent up the depth chart.
Now, with one game remaining, Pickett finds himself in a position where he may take the reigns to close the season. It’s uncertain who will start at quarterback in the Panthers’ final game against Miami, but Pickett figures to play a large role regardless, as Narduzzi acknowledged in Saturday’s postgame press conference.
“We think [Pickett’s] probably a better passer at this point,” Narduzzi said. “He did give us a shot with some of the balls he threw.”
Looking past the Panthers’ upcoming final game, Pickett at least gives Pitt fans something to look forward to. As a sophomore next season, he’ll have already gained some critical confidence from his first year. Along with Hall, the two should bring back something the offense lacked entering this season — experience.
The Panthers are in desperate need of a confident, consistent quarterback who can keep drives alive with his arm. The team’s third down conversion percentage is one of the worst in the nation —114th out of 130 teams — at just 31.85 percent.
If Pickett continues to display poise as he did in Saturday’s contest, it will majorly benefit an offense that has struggled this year. His next chance will come against an undefeated No. 2 Miami team this Friday.