Pitt poised to win first ACC Championship


Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Redshirt senior running back Qadree Ollison celebrates after a successful play during Pitt’s victory against Virginia Tech on Saturday.

By Tyler Moran, Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Panthers (6-4, 5-1 ACC) demolished the Virginia Tech Hokies in a record-setting senior night at Heinz Field Saturday evening. Pitt racked up a monstrous 654 yards total, the most in school history, en route to a 52-22 victory over the Hokies.

The win also set Pitt up to make its first appearance at the ACC Championship. In order to make that happen, the Panthers have to win one of their last two games or Virginia has to lose one of its last two games.

If the Panthers make it to the Championship game, they will be playing No. 2 Clemson — two years and one month after Pitt’s last-second 43-42 upset against the Tigers.

Another upset would guarantee Pitt a chance at a New Year’s Six bowl game. If they can’t pull out a win, the Panthers are still guaranteed a bowl game. Right now, it is predicted they will play in the Belk Bowl against Brigham Young University or the Sun Bowl.

If the Panthers were to win, it would be in large part due to their running game. Of the record setting 654 yards on Saturday, 492 came on the ground. Pitt currently sits 10th in all of college football in rushing yards per game, averaging 256.9. Senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall deserve most of the credit.

Ollison rushed for 235 yards on 16 attempts and found himself celebrating in the end zone three times — once after a 97-yard run, breaking the record for the longest run in Pitt football history.

Hall ran for 186 yards on just seven attempts, including a 73-yard rushing touchdown. Junior Maurice Ffrench also scored two touchdowns, including a 78-yard pass from quarterback Kenny Pickett.

The coaching staff is also starting to catch on to its strengths and weaknesses as Pickett has not passed for more than 200 yards in a single game.

Pitt was picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division and did not receive one first-place vote in the preseason poll. And given its start of the season, those votes didn’t seem too far off.

Five weeks in, Pitt was sitting at a 2-3 record after it lost to then-ranked No. 13 Penn State on Sept. 5, 51-6, and after that lost to then-No. 13 UCF, 45-14 on Sept. 29. Pitt’s worst loss came against North Carolina when the Tarheels won 38-35 for their only win of the season.

Those first five weeks were defined by a lack of ability to make second-half adjustments. In its first five games, Pitt scored a combined 17 points in the second half. Part of that was due to head coach Pat Narduzzi failing to bring variety to his play-calling.

Things were looking grim and the season was spiraling toward inevitable failure until Oct. 6, when Pitt beat Syracuse 44-37 in an overtime thriller.

The game was defined by variation in play-calling — the introduction of the wildcat offense and various jet sweeps to the Pitt run scheme. It was exactly what the Panthers needed and it defined how the second half of the season would turn out.

In the last five weeks, Pitt has boasted a 4-1 record and is currently riding a three-game win streak. In addition to its wins over Syracuse and Virginia Tech, Pitt also notched wins against Duke and No. 25 Virginia.

Over the course of this streak, Pitt has put more emphasis on its run game. The Panthers have scored 13 rushing touchdowns to accompany 1,230 rushing yards. When it comes to its passing game, Pitt only has three receiving touchdowns and 373 receiving yards in its last three games.

While part of the Panthers’ success has been due to diverse play-calling, it has also been because of their use of different players. Redshirt freshman V’Lique Carter saw time as a running back for the first time this season against Duke. Carter ran for 137 yards on seven attempts and scored two touchdowns.

Pitt’s defense has also come alive the second half of the season after giving up 160 points in the first half of the season — yet it has only given up 136 points in its last five games.

The Panthers’ best performance of the season came against Virginia when they held the Cavaliers to 13 points. More impressively, Pitt forced quarterback Bryce Perkins to lose seven yards on 15 carry attempts, his lowest output of the season.

From its offense to its defense, Pitt football went from a team that looked lost and struggling for answers to a team that has broken records and is one win away from making history with the first ACC Championship appearance in school history.

Pitt’s destiny is in its own hands, and an ACC Championship win over Clemson would be vastly beneficial for the program — and would paralyze the college football nation with utter shock and awe.