The Pitt football team has one game remaining to resurrect a season defined by missed opportunities. The Panthers’ bowl hopes are over, meaning they are motivated by just one thing — ruining their opponent’s perfect season.
Pitt (4-7 overall, 2-5 ACC) hosts No. 2 Miami (10-0 overall, 7-0 ACC) Friday in the Panthers’ final game of the season. The Panthers enter the contest riding a two-game losing streak in which they prodded the line between victory and defeat, ultimately dropping both games to seal their bowl-less doom.
Leading University of North Carolina by four points in the fourth quarter, Pitt appeared to be in line for a week 11 victory Nov. 9. Instead, the Panthers let the ACC’s bottom-ranked team march down their home field to score a game-winning touchdown.
The Panthers had another chance to win over the weekend, this time against a quality opponent in Virginia Tech. After redshirt senior Jester Weah’s 74-yard fourth down reception, the offense had four tries to score a game winner from the 1-yard line. But they came up short each time, and fell 20-14 to the Hokies.
If the Panthers could have taken advantage of these late-game opportunities, they would be 6-5 and eyeing up their tenth consecutive bowl game. Instead, the team currently stands at 4-7 and a loss on Friday could give the team its worst finishing record since 1998.
“We’ll use Miami as a measuring stick to find out where we are as a football team, how far we’ve grown and learned through the entire year,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said Monday.
However, a loss seems likely, especially with a matchup against the undefeated Hurricanes. Miami has dismantled quality opponents, beating Virginia Tech 28-10 and Notre Dame 41-8, in two of the last three weeks.Those teams were ranked 13th and third, respectively, at that time.
But their so-far-perfect season hasn’t been all easy.
Despite blowing out ranked teams, Miami has struggled with lesser opponents. The Hurricanes squeaked out victories over Florida State, 24-20, Georgia Tech, 25-24, Syracuse, 27-19, and UNC, 24-19. Pitt falls into the same realm as these unranked, mediocre teams, so the Panthers could have a chance of catching the Hurricanes off guard and giving them a close game.
Even though many of Miami’s wins have been ugly, it takes more than luck to go 10-0. The Hurricanes’ success can be attributed to, among other things, their turnover chain — a massive, 10-karat Cuban link necklace complete with a bejeweled Miami “U” logo.
“They’ve got that chain going and the U and the whole deal,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve got confidence that they’re going to get turnovers every time they walk out onto the field.”
Since the beginning of the season, the chain has been bestowed upon any Miami defender coming to the sideline after forcing a turnover. This incentive has gained national popularity, but it’s more than a gimmick — the Hurricanes currently have the nation’s best turnover margin, having forced 27 turnovers and given up just 11.
On offense, Miami outranks Pitt in every major category, including points per game (33.7 to 23.9), passing yards per game (265.3 to 219.9) and rushing yards per game (176.7 to 148.2). The Hurricanes’ attack is led by quarterback Malik Rosier, who has thrown for 2,620 yards and 23 touchdowns this season in addition to 377 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Sophomore running back Travis Homer has amassed 849 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, singling himself out as a lethal complement to Rosier. On the other side, Pitt’s leading rusher — junior running back Darrin Hall — has rushed for 598 yards and nine touchdowns.
Hall had carried Pitt’s offense since he gained the starting job in week eight, rushing for 486 yards and eight touchdowns over three games, but he was stifled last week for just four yards on 15 carries. In his absence, first-year quarterback Kenny Pickett stepped up to throw for 242 yards after replacing sophomore Ben DiNucci in the second quarter.
Narduzzi has been reluctant to play one quarterback for an entire game, insisting that the he’ll play whoever gives the team the best chance to win. DiNucci will most likely start, but unless he plays perfectly you can expect to see the up-and-coming Pickett under center at some point. Pickett showed flashes of legitimacy versus Virginia Tech and if he outperforms DiNucci again, he may take over the starting job heading into 2018. Whoever plays under center for the Panthers will need to exercise caution against Miami’s aggressive defense, whose 17 interceptions rank fourth in the nation.
PREDICTION: Narduzzi has shown that he is capable of motivating his players to produce quality performances at unexpected times, as evidenced by last year’s upset victories over Penn State and Clemson. The fact that the Panthers are coming off two frustrating losses while the Hurricanes have won three straight games by 16 or more points may actually bode well for Pitt, as Miami has been known to start out lackadaisically against lesser teams.
The Panthers will come out fired up and may take an early lead against the unsuspecting Hurricanes. Pitt’s defense will limit damage control for three quarters, while the offense does enough to keep the game close. But Miami has more to play for, and they’ll ultimately be motivated by their playoff aspirations. The Hurricanes will instinctively take over in the fourth quarter, preserving their undefeated season and dealing the Panthers their eighth loss.
Miami: 30, Pitt: 20