Panthers win 23-13, leapfrog Va. in ACC Coastal


Thomas J. Yang

Senior running back Darrin Hall, pictured here against Penn State earlier this season, led the Panthers with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

It was raining buckets at kickoff of Pitt’s road contest against Virginia Friday night — but the sloppy field conditions were perfectly suited for the run-oriented Panthers, who pounded the ball on the ground and stifled Virginia’s offense en route to a 23-13 victory, leapfrogging the Cavaliers for first place in the ACC Coastal

Despite only throwing for 61 yards, Pitt (5-4 overall, 4-1 ACC) manhandled Virginia (6-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) up front, opening holes for senior running back Darrin Hall all night long. Hall rushed for 229 yards and three touchdowns, the defense allowed a season-low 249 yards, and the Panthers’ magnum opus on the evening was a 15-play, nine-minute long scoring drive which gave them the lead for good at the end of the third quarter.

By the time Pitt sophomore kicker Alex Kessman booted the opening kickoff, the field environment resembled a monsoon, with puddles sprouting up across the turf. The slippery conditions made an instant impact, as junior receiver Joe Reed coughed the ball up after getting hit.

The Cavaliers managed to recover the fumble, but their offense sputtered out after eight plays thanks to three team penalties. Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins seemed to be affected by the rain, routinely sailing passes over his receivers and completing one of three attempts on Virginia’s first drive.

The Panthers took over on their own 16 yard line and marched to midfield before facing a fourth-and-one. Head coach Pat Narduzzi gambled and went for the first down — a decision which paid off, as sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett surged ahead for two yards on the quarterback sneak.

Narduzzi’s decision to not punt looked even better two plays later, when Hall found a massive hole on the left side of the line and burst through untouched, gathering a head of steam and taking the ball all the way into the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown sprint. Kessman’s extra point put the Panthers up 7-0 early.

That lead would last all of 15 seconds; the Cavaliers tied the game up on their first offensive play of the ensuing drive, as Perkins looked off the secondary and fired a deep strike down the right sideline to sophomore receiver Terrell Jana, who caught the pass in stride and took it into the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown.

Neither team managed much offensive success from there, and by the time the Panthers got the ball on their own one-yard line with 5:30 left in the half, the score remained 7-7. Pitt managed to move the ball nine yards, giving the offense a fourth-and-one on their own 10 yard line. Narduzzi spat in the face of common football logic and brazenly elected to go for it — once again, Pickett picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak.

However, the Panthers failed to utilize that momentum to their advantage and punted four plays later.

Virginia started with quality field possession on their own 43-yard line, and a completion from Perkins to Jana moved them into field-goal range at Pitt’s 21 yard line. Two plays later, the Panthers appeared to come up with a big play when they sacked Perkins with six seconds remaining in the half.

But the referees took another look at the tackle to see if Pitt sophomore defensive lineman Patrick Jones II made helmet-to-helmet contact with Perkins while he was already wrapped up — what amounts to be a targeting penalty in college football, punishable by a 15-yard penalty and the perpetrator getting ejected from the game.

After a very lengthy review process, the refs ultimately sided with the homefield Cavaliers. Jones II was ejected and Virginia, instead of taking a sack, was awarded half the distance to the goal line, setting up a chip-shot 29-yard field goal for sophomore kicker Brian Delaney. He sent it through the uprights, giving the Cavaliers a 10-7 advantage heading into the halftime locker room.

The third quarter saw the defensive stalemate continue through both team’s first possessions, with each ending in a punt.

The Panthers were finally able to string together a complete drive starting with 9 minutes left in the third, milking 8 minutes and 40 seconds of clock on a hard-nosed, 15-play slugfest led by Darrin Hall. Facing a third-and-one, Hall chugged ahead for 12 yards. Facing a third-and-three, Hall again rushed for nine yards to keep the drive alive.

Facing another third-and-short situation, the Panthers — you guessed it — handed the ball to Hall, who picked up four yards. The Pitt offensive line was in total control at this point, imposing its will on the visibly tired Virginia defense. Three plays later, Hall burst into the end zone on a two-yard scamper, giving him eight carries for 50 yards on that drive alone — and giving the Panthers a 14-10 lead heading into the last quarter.

Virginia looked poised to strike back on its next possession, getting as far as the Pitt 22 yard line. But the Panther defensive line stepped up and stopped Perkins in the backfield on third-and-ten, forcing the Cavaliers to kick a 42-yard field goal. Delaney made his second attempt of the night to bring Virginia within one point, 14-13.

With 9:51 left in the game, Pitt’s offense faced a crucial opportunity to extend its lead.

And as he had all game, Hall put the team on his back. On Pitt’s first play, he took the handoff, found a crease and accelerated past the Virginia linebacking corps and secondary, outracing every last Cavalier defender on his way to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. The run also gave Hall 14 carries for an astounding 194 yards and three touchdowns on the night.

However, a bad exchange on the extra-point snap resulted in a fumble, meaning Pitt’s lead stayed at 20-13 instead of gaining an eight-point advantage.

The Panthers then forced a three-and-out, once again thanks to a key third-down sack — this time coming from senior defensive end Dewayne Hendrix. A poor punt from Virginia gave the Panthers’ possession around midfield with the chance to put the game away.

Hall rushed for gains of seven and six yards, moving the Panthers down within the Virginia 40 yard line. They would get as far as the 35 before facing a fourth down, giving Narduzzi the choice to punt and pin Virginia deep or go for the long field goal to put the game out of reach. Narduzzi again showed faith in his players, sending Kessman out for the field goal attempt. The big-leg specialist drilled the 53-yarder — his sixth field goal from 50 or more yards this season — to give Pitt a decisive 23-13 lead with 4:19 left.

On third-and-one, Perkins dropped pack to pass. The Panther defensive line swarmed him, and Perkins made the mistake of not throwing the ball away. Senior linebacker Elijah Zeise corralled him deep in the backfield for a 16-yard loss, giving Pitt its season-high fifth sack of the night.

Perkins’ fourth-and-17 Hail Mary was broken up by sophomore defensive back Damarri Mathis, giving Pitt’s offense the ball at the opposing 30 yard line with 2:49 left. The Panthers ran the clock out from there, picking up one first down and kneeling out the rest to secure the 23-13 victory — and first place in the ACC Coastal.

After being outgained by Ollison for the most of the season, Friday marked a spectacular evening for Hall, who finished with 19 carries for 229 yards and three touchdowns. He accounted for most of the offensive production, considering Pickett only completed seven of 14 passes for 61 yards.

Pitt’s offense didn’t have to do much, considering the defense gave its best performance of the season. In addition to tying their season-high of five sacks, the Panthers only gave up a season-low 249 yards — including just 56 in the second half — to the Cavaliers.

Next up, the Panthers will look to defend their position atop the Coastal standings when they host Virginia Tech in a crucial division matchup next Saturday.