Panthers display dominance versus Great Danes, cruise to 33-7 win in home opener


Thomas J. Yang

Junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench runs the ball while completing his first touchdown against Albany.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Pitt junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench made sure that the first play of the Panthers’ opener would set a positive precedent for the rest of the game — and hopefully, the season — when he caught the opening kickoff, spotted a lane and zipped 91 yards untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown.

“I’ve actually been saying that I was going to take the first kick return back for about a week now,” Ffrench said. “The coaches have been saying it as well… they all believed in it and it actually happened.”

That quick score —  which marked the Panthers’ first opening-kickoff touchdown since Quadree Henderson accomplished the feat in the 2015 Military Bowl against Navy — foreshadowed what would be a thoroughly dominant performance by the Pitt football team in its first game of the season against the Albany Great Danes.

The Panthers scored all the points they would need in the first half, taking a commanding 33-7 lead thanks to three total touchdowns from sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett. That performance, combined with five sacks and two interceptions from the defense, as well as a 238 to 60 yard rushing advantage ensured that the team would cruise to a comfortable victory.

“That shows our kids and hopefully shows everybody this is a different football team than it was a year ago,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We didn’t go out there and settle for less. And I think we’re just going to keep getting better.”

Following Ffrench’s touchdown return, senior quarterback Vincent Testaverde and the rest of the Albany offense got off to a promising start on their first drive, with Testaverde completing a 37-yard pass to junior receiver Jerah Reeves on the first play. The Great Danes would ultimately drive down to the Panthers’ 19-yard line — but Pitt junior defensive back Damar Hamlin changed the momentum by intercepting Testaverde and taking the ensuing return 79 yards to the Albany 19-yard line.

From there, it took the Panthers just three plays to score. Pickett capped off the brief drive with a five-yard touchdown run to take a 13-0 Pitt lead — that score would hold up after a missed extra point by sophomore kicker Alex Kessman.

Pitt’s defense flashed its muscle on the next drive, forcing Albany to punt after a quick three-and-out.

Starting from their own 25-yard line, Pickett and the Panther offense began a steady march downfield toward the opposing goal line. Nine plays and 75 yards later, Ffrench found himself in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day — this time on an eight-yard end-around. After a failed two-point conversion, the Panther lead stood at 19-0 with 4:42 still remaining in the first quarter.

Pickett displayed poise and consistency on the drive, completing all five of his passes to four different receivers for 34 yards.

The Panther defense finally showed its mortality on the next drive, allowing Testaverde to complete another deep bomb on the first play — this time a 40-yard pass to first-year receiver Dev Holmes. The Great Danes capitalized off that big play when Testaverde hooked up with Holmes again six plays later for a nine-yard touchdown pass, narrowing it down to a 19-7 Albany deficit.

Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson continued to have success with his short-play, West-coast style offense on the Panthers’ first drive of the second quarter. The offense methodically drove down the field — 10 of 12 plays produced seven yards or less— and Pickett capped off the 81-yard drive with a lofty three-yard pass to Araujo-Lopes in the corner of the end zone.

Now officially entering blowout territory, that score gave the Panthers a 26-7 lead with 10:17 remaining in the second quarter.

After another unsuccessful Great Danes’ possession, the Panthers got the ball back on their own five-yard line. Facing a 95-yard trek to the end zone, the Pitt offense once again moved the ball as it had all game. Pickett & Co. amassed 53 yards in eight plays before the Panthers finally broke through with a big play — a 42-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Araujo-Lopes, the duo’s second of the day, driving the score up to 33-7.

That score held up going into halftime, with Pitt’s 26-point lead displaying just how lopsided the game had become.

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The box score affirmed the Panthers’ first-half dominance — especially the numbers of Pickett, who had yet to throw an incompletion. The sophomore quarterback did nothing to disprove his offseason hype through the opening stretch of the game, completing all 13 of his passes for 129 yards and three total touchdowns. Meanwhile, Pitt’s balanced ground attack outgained Albany by a margin of 141 to 54 yards.

Albany received the opening kickoff in the second half and again drove into Pitt territory, gaining 42 yards to the Pitt 33-yard line. But the Panthers stuck to their “bend but don’t break” defensive approach, and baited Testaverde into another interception when sophomore cornerback Damarri Mathis picked him off in the end zone.

Pickett gave Pitt fans a brief scare on the fifth play of the ensuing drive, when he opted to leap over an oncoming Albany defender rather than slide. He was hit hard on the play but came up unscathed — although he did fumble the ball, resulting in the Panthers’ first drive of the day that did not end with a touchdown.

“I said to Kenny Pickett… when he was warming up, I said ‘Listen, you do not take a hit, so you go down,'” Narduzzi said. “So what does he do? He goes up. He must have misunderstood down and up.”

After the game, Pickett admitted that he doesn’t have much experience with sliding and avoiding contact.

“Today was my first slide, like ever, I think,” Pickett said. “I’ve always been taught to finish my runs. It’s just something I have to get used to now, being smarter.”

The Great Danes’ next drive ended in familiar fashion — a punt, giving the Panthers the ball back on their own 18-yard line. The Pitt offense advanced 57 yards on nine plays down to the Albany 25-yard line before stalling out for the second consecutive drive when a tipped Pickett pass fell into the hands of Great Danes’ senior linebacker Neven Sussman.

The Panthers got the ball back with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, and Pickett gave fans an even bigger scare than before when he scampered for a 12-yard first-down pickup on third and six. Pickett wisely chose to slide this time, but did so awkwardly and laid down on the field after trying to get up from the ground.

A hush came over the Heinz Field crowd, fearing the worst for Pitt’s promising prospect as the Panthers’ medical and coaching staff came out to take a look at Pickett.

But after a short intermission, Pickett allowed the stadium to take a collective sigh of relief when he walked off the field on his own power. The injury ended up being a cramp, and Pickett missed just one play before returning to action.

With the game essentially over, the Panthers eased up on offense while continuing to stifle the Great Danes on defense. The result was a stalemate in the fourth quarter — and the entire second half — with final scoreboard resembling the halftime scoreboard: Pitt 33, Albany 7.

Senior running back Qadree Ollison finished as the leading rusher in the Panthers’ backfield platoon, contributing seven carries for 73 yards. On a surprising note, sophomore running back A.J. Davis led the Pitt backfield in carries with 13 for 46 yards.

Pickett finished with an exceptional statline, completing 16 of 22 passes for 154 yards, three touchdowns — two passing, one rushing — and one interception. As expected, Araujo-Lopes led the receiving corps with three receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns, while sophomore Taysir Mack wasn’t far behind with three receptions for 44 yards.

“We started very good and I thought that it just slipped off in the second half,” Pickett said. “It’s the first week, we got the win, which is important and now we’re moving on.”

The Panthers will face their first true test of the season next Saturday against in-state rival Penn State, with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m. at Heinz Field.