The Panthers split their football team into Blue and Gold teams Saturday afternoon for their annual Spring Game, a contest in which neither offense looked exceptional. It proved fitting that a defensive touchdown — redshirt junior defensive back Dane Jackson’s 60-yard interception-turned-touchdown — handed the Blue Team a 10-3 victory in the final seconds.
“It’s easier to play on defense in a scrimmage like that,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We have more depth on defense than offense right now. [Offensive lineman] Brian O’Neill hurt his shoulder in the fourth quarter last year, so I was playing it safe with our offensive line this year.”
The Blue Team, led on offense by redshirt junior quarterback Ricky Town and senior running back Darrin Hall, looked out of sync during its first two possessions, both three-and-outs. Town was sacked twice and failed to connect on either of his two passes, while Hall picked up just four yards on one carry.
Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Gold Team also got off to an ugly start in their opening drive. Sophomore running back AJ Davis lost yards on the first play, followed by a Pickett sack and incomplete pass resulting in a three-and-out.
It was more of the same throughout the first quarter — punts back and forth at the end of each drive. The Gold Team picked up the only first down of the quarter on a fourth-down rush by Davis, but couldn’t produce any points. The quarter finished 0-0.
First-year kicker Jake Scarton finally broke the scoreless draw in the second quarter when he knocked down a 24-yard field goal, giving the Gold Team a 3-0 lead into halftime. Pickett set up the attempt with a 22-yard first-down completion to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Taysir Mack, the most yards gained in any play of the first half.
The first-half statistics showed poor performances for both teams — especially the Blue offense, which failed to earn a single first down. No Blue receiver recorded yards in the first half either, as all four of Town’s pass attempts fell incomplete.
But despite only leading by three, the Gold Team’s offense outperformed the Blue’s by a margin of 83 to 19 total yards. Pickett completed five of his 11 pass attempts for 51 yards, Davis rushed eight times for 28 yards and Mack caught two passes for 35 yards for the Gold Team.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Zilinskas started the second half as quarterback for the Gold Team, but went three-and-out in his first drive and was subsequently replaced by Pickett. The defenses held firm for both teams throughout an uneventful third quarter, keeping the score at 3-0 entering the fourth.
It took until the fourth quarter, but the Blue Team finally picked up a first down with Town’s first completed pass — a 46-yard bomb to redshirt first-year receiver Michael Smith, giving the offense prime field possession on the 15-yard line. The Blue offense stalled from there until redshirt sophomore kicker Alex Kessman converted a 33-yard field goal attempt to tie the game at three with 8:42 remaining.
The two sides exchanged unsuccessful possessions before the Gold Team took over at the 30-yard line with 2:28 left. The situation was a perfect test for Pickett’s clutch ability, which he displayed in a 24-14 upset victory over Miami last season.
Pickett looked locked in, completing his first three passes of the drive and picking up a Gold first down.
But on third-and-eight, Blue cornerback Jackson jumped in front of a Pickett pass, intercepting the ball and taking it 60 yards the other way for a decisive last-minute touchdown for the Blue Team.
“They kept running that same route,” Jackson said. “So the third time, I finally baited him and jumped in front of the pass.”
The Blue defense held firm for the last few efforts from the Gold, earning a 10-3 victory when the clock ran out.
“I think our defense is really gonna surprise a lot of people this year,” Pickett said. “They’re fast, and the defensive backs especially I think are our strength.”
Pickett completed 13 of his 23 passes for 140 yards and an interception, while Town finished with just one completed pass on nine attempts for 46 yards. Davis led all rushers with 38 yards, and Gold receivers Mack and redshirt sophomore Ruben Flowers III led the Panthers with 58 and 62 receiving yards, respectively.
The Panthers begin their regular season Saturday, Sept. 1, with a home game versus Albany.