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Panthers to unleash the demon on Wake Forest

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Panthers to unleash the demon on Wake Forest

Junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench runs the ball during Pitt’s 55-22 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench runs the ball during Pitt’s 55-22 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench runs the ball during Pitt’s 55-22 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Junior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench runs the ball during Pitt’s 55-22 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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Pitt football (6-4, 5-1 ACC) is riding an impressive three-game win streak as it heads to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this Saturday to take on Wake Forest (5-5, 2-4 ACC). In their last outing, the Panthers beat Virginia Tech 52-22, all but securing a spot in the ACC championship game.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi has had the Panthers playing on a whole new level during their win streak. But this was most evident in their win over VT last weekend, when Pitt set a school record with 654 total offensive yards, 492 coming from the run game.

The offensive line deserves as much credit as the running backs for the record-breaking performance. The line has been instrumental to the success of the offense this season. With the passing game somewhat limited, the linemen have stepped up, creating massive holes from start to finish all season.

Senior tailbacks Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall have been taking advantage of their offensive line. During the past three games, the two have combined for 893 yards and eight scores, alternating big games against Duke and Virginia and combining for an explosive night against VT when they ran for 235 and 186 yards respectively and combined for four touchdowns.

Wake Forest hasn’t been particularly stingy against the run this year, so Hall and Ollison should continue their impressive senior campaign this weekend. Pitt’s run game has been consistently strong all year and there’s no reason to believe that should end Saturday, especially with the program’s first ACC Coastal title on the line. Ollison has already eclipsed 1,000 yards and Hall could join him with a big game, making the two the first pair of teammates to do so this year.

Although the running game has been the staple of Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson’s offense, sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett and his passing game certainly warrant praise as of late. Over the past four games, Pickett hasn’t thrown an interception and with the help of the offensive line has avoided more than one sack in all but one game. It’s unrealistic to expect eye-popping numbers out of Pickett at this point, but he has limited mistakes and turnovers, improving in the process.

Pitt’s deep threat, junior receiver Maurice Ffrench, should add another dimension to its offense against the Demon Deacons. Pickett and Ffrench have shown a good connection this season, hooking up for Pitt’s longest passing play this season, a 78-yard TD, last week. Ffrench averages almost 38 yards a catch, and two of his five scores this year have been for 50-plus yards.

Two of Pitt’s last three games have been 50-point outings and Wake Forest has allowed 35 points or more in more than half its contests. Plain and simple, there’s no reason Pitt shouldn’t retain its recent offensive success against Wake.

The Panthers’ defense has also been performing well lately, holding its own against teams that were projected to defeat Pitt at the beginning of the season. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates has led the team to two stellar defensive outings in a row, limiting Virginia and Virginia Tech to 13 and 22 points, respectively.

At the time, it seemed like Pitt’s defensive performance against Notre Dame, holding the Fighting Irish to 19 points, was an outlier after Duke scored 45 against Pitt two weeks later. But the past two weeks have shown that the game against Duke might actually be the anomaly.

Sophomore Rashad Weaver and senior Dewayne Hendrix have enjoyed impressive seasons at defensive end, really coming on as of late. The two lead the team in sacks, with 5.5 and four, respectively. Both recorded one sack last week and combined for 3.5 against Virginia. The Panther defense has tallied nine sacks total over the past two games.

The loss of senior linebacker, captain and leading tackler Quintin Wirginis to a knee injury several weeks ago was certainly cause for concern in an already sputtering defense, but fellow senior Seun Idowu has stepped up.

Idowu has led the team in tackles the past two weeks and is now second on the team for the year with 56, just behind junior safety Damar Hamlin with 63. Sophomore linebacker Elias Reynolds has also been a key component in the defensive, compiling 23 tackles since Wirginis’ injury.

Wake Forest possesses an offense that averages about 32 points per game, but this should be taken with a grain of salt. The average is bolstered by high scoring games against non-conference opponents Rice and Towson and against a struggling Louisville squad.

The Demon Deacons lost quarterback Sam Hartman for the season with an injury, so Jamie Newman stepped in and threw for three touchdowns last week in their win against NC State.

Pitt has had trouble with good opposing quarterback play this year —  Bates should make it a priority to rattle the first-years in his second career start with pressure and blitzes, particularly from the defensive line.

Hamlin, senior safety Dennis Briggs and the rest of the secondary will need to keep their eye on receiver Greg Dortch. The sophomore leads the ACC in receptions and is ranked fifth in the NCAA with 75. He is also ranked 20th in receiving yards with 921. If the Panther defensive backs can keep Dortch in check, it will be evident that they, too, have come a long way since the start of the season.

A bad defensive performance could lead to a typical Pitt outcome against a team that has no business beating the Panthers, like the Week 4 loss at UNC. But a third consecutive successful defense performance could not only guarantee a division title, it would also increase the already strong momentum leading into a tough matchup at Miami.

Prediction

Pitt: 41   Wake Forest: 24

The Panther offense is scorching hot right now and Wake Forest won’t be able to tame the blaze. Ollison and Hall are barreling through opponents on their way to the end zone behind a merciless offensive line. The success of the offense has been matched by an inspiring defense as the two units seem to be putting it all together at the perfect time.

Narduzzi was mocked for saying all the team’s goals were still intact after an ugly loss to UCF, but his words are becoming reality. The Panthers will conquer the ACC Coastal for the first time since entering the conference — condolences to Wake Forest for being the team that has to stand in their way.

 

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Panthers to unleash the demon on Wake Forest