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Reporter’s notebook: Reflecting on Pitt’s football season

First-year+quarterback+Kenny+Pickett+threw+for+242+yards+in+the+Panthers%E2%80%99+loss+to+Virginia+Tech+earlier+this+month.+%28Photo+by+John+Hamilton+%7C+Managing+Editor%29
First-year quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 242 yards in the Panthers’ loss to Virginia Tech earlier this month. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

First-year quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 242 yards in the Panthers’ loss to Virginia Tech earlier this month. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

First-year quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 242 yards in the Panthers’ loss to Virginia Tech earlier this month. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

By David Leftwich | Senior Staff Writer

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As I watched the Panthers upset No. 7 Miami to close out their season, I had the same thought as I did coming into the season — this team will be good.

Covering the Panther football team this year was as uneven as the team’s performance. Early on, I realized the team needed to make strides all over the field to even compete, and though the squad finished at a disappointing 5-7 overall, 3-5 ACC, I have renewed hope for next year.

While the team lost a strong senior class coming into the year — most notably quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner — I thought the Panthers still had talent on both sides of the ball. With the addition of a highly touted quarterback in Max Browne joining the team for his senior year, I expected a solid year.

After watching the Panthers get blown out by No. 9 Penn State, No. 18 Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech in the first four weeks of the season, I realized my preseason predictions were completely off base.

Defensively, teams did whatever they wanted to the Panthers. No. 18 Oklahoma State gashed the Pitt defense for more than 500 yards through the air. The very next week, Georgia Tech exploded for more than 400 yards on the ground.

Defensive backs were getting burned on the outside, in part because the Panthers could barely generate a push up front — putting up only four sacks through their first four games. Teams could either run on the weak defensive line or expose Pitt through the air.

On offense, Browne didn’t pan out as quarterback. He played a safe, efficient game, but couldn’t make any big plays. Through four games, he threw for less than 500 yards and only one touchdown.

Redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci even earned some time as quarterback, but the offense sputtered regardless of which quarterback took the field. DiNucci’s mobility helped generate a few touchdown drives against Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State but bad sacks and interceptions limited DiNucci’s success in both games.

From my vantage point in the press box, win or lose, these first four games were fun. No matter the score of a game, I sat in the temperature-controlled room, well-fed and surrounded by professional sports experts.

A halftime hotdog could always comfort me after an ugly half from the Panthers, and week to week I even had chances to parse words with prominent sports personalities such as ESPN’s Joey Galloway.

But the team surprised me over the next eight weeks. Key players emerged and the team made improvements all over the field.

Against Duke, junior running back Darrin Hall stepped up with a 254-yard performance in a 24-17 win — solidifying himself as the team’s featured tailback moving forward. He went on to put up 100-yard performances in his next two games and racked up five touchdowns in that span.

Senior defensive back Avonte Maddox emerged as the leader of the Panthers’ defense, making two interceptions and forcing three fumbles throughout a year shortened by injury. Battling an arm injury he suffered against Duke, Maddox returned with a huge game against Miami.

Every week, regardless of the outcome, I saw something on the field that inspired hope for the future. Unfortunately for the Panthers, these pieces often couldn’t come together at the same time to lead to consistent wins.

But against No. 7 Miami, the Panthers provided a glimpse into a bright future.

First-year quarterback Kenny Pickett earned his first start of the season and provided a gutsy performance. Often scrambling to earn rushing yards in traffic or taking hits mid-throw, Pickett accounted for three touchdowns and delivered in a big way.

Pickett entered this season expecting to redshirt, but after Browne’s season-ending injury against Syracuse, Pickett moved into a backup role. Pickett then competed with DiNucci for playing time and finally won the starting job after a 242-yard performance two weeks ago in a loss to No. 22 Virginia Tech.

Other underclassmen stepped up to completely shut down Miami’s offense. First-year defensive lineman Rashad Weaver and redshirt sophomore defensive back Dane Jackson recorded pass breakups and contributed to a defensive effort that kept the Hurricanes off-balance.

And in a career-defining moment, Maddox came through with a forced fumble on redshirt junior quarterback Malik Rosier to seal the stunning 24-14 win for the Panthers.

Beyond feeling a jolt of excitement as time expired, I also thought this game marked a step forward for the Panther football program. If returning players such as Pickett, Hall and Jackson continue to improve, this type of high-profile win could become the norm.

That being said, I’m just the guy who ate hot dogs and watched this team from the press box. We’ll all see for ourselves next fall.

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Reporter’s notebook: Reflecting on Pitt’s football season