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Panthers exorcise Demon Deacons 34-13, clinch Coastal

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Panthers exorcise Demon Deacons 34-13, clinch Coastal

The Pitt football team pictured celebrating after beating Duke in October. They're celebrating again after winning the ACC's Coastal division.

The Pitt football team pictured celebrating after beating Duke in October. They're celebrating again after winning the ACC's Coastal division.

Thomas J. Yang

The Pitt football team pictured celebrating after beating Duke in October. They're celebrating again after winning the ACC's Coastal division.

Thomas J. Yang

Thomas J. Yang

The Pitt football team pictured celebrating after beating Duke in October. They're celebrating again after winning the ACC's Coastal division.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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Last season, the Pitt football team finished second-to-last in the ACC Coastal, above only UNC.

This season, pundits had the Panthers moving up just one spot to fifth place — none of the 148 media members gave them a single first-place vote.

Today, Pitt became Coastal champs for the first time in program history after knocking off Wake Forest 34-13.

After starting the season an ugly 2-3, the Panthers stormed back to take five of their last six games, including five straight ACC games, to pull off the unthinkable. Unthinkable, of course, to everyone except those within the program.

“We want to be that best team in the country, we want to be ACC champions, we want to be in the playoff,” Narduzzi said before the season. “We want to try to make everybody else look bad and make sure Pitt’s at the top of the coastal.”

Well, Pitt’s four overall losses won’t earn them the title of “best team in the country” or a spot in the College Football Playoff, but Narduzzi called his shot on overtaking the Coastal and making everyone else look bad. The Panthers made sure their last two games lacked any late-game drama, beating Wake Forest by 21 and Virginia Tech by 30.

This all comes after many were calling for Narduzzi’s job — with some saying Pitt’s football program should reclassify to the Division III level — back in September. There was a case to be made, as the Panthers were coming off an embarrassing 51-6 blowout to Penn State, a 45-14 loss to UCF and a 38-35 loss to ACC bottom-dweller UNC.

But Narduzzi stuck by his deep class of 18 seniors, and they repaid him with Herculean individual efforts and leadership in the face of adversity. The senior backfield trio of Darrin Hall, Qadree Ollison and George Aston became one of the best units in the nation, with Ollison and Hall repeatedly rattling off big runs and Aston often pancaking second-level defenders to lead the way. It also helped that the rest of the Coastal collapsed, with projected leaders Miami and Virginia Tech having massive down years.

The Panthers entered Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons with an ideal scenario. Virginia, their only other contender in the Coastal, would need to win its last two games while the Panthers lost each of their final two — giving Pitt a 95 percent chance to clinch the division.

Through one half, those odds were looking a lot slimmer. Wake Forest stifled Pitt’s feared rushing attack, allowing only 58 yards. The Panthers only managed to score one touchdown — set up by a miracle connection from sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett to junior receiver Maurice Ffrench — and the extra point was blocked. The Demon Deacons led 10-6 at halftime.

But the second half was a completely different story, and unlike most Pitt victories this season, it wasn’t a senior who led the way.

Instead, Pickett turned in a career performance, passing for 169 yards— more than he’d thrown for in seven complete games this season — and a career-high three touchdowns in the second half alone.

Beginning with 11:01 left in the third quarter, Pitt’s offense proceeded to score a touchdown on three straight possessions, all coming from the arm of Pickett — a four-yard completion to senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a 63-yard bomb to sophomore Taysir Mack and a 23-yard toss to Ffrench. Pitt’s defense held firm all the while, allowing just a field goal. By the time Ffrench caught his touchdown with 7:27 left in the game, the Panthers led 27-13.

For good measure, Pitt tacked on one more touchdown, albeit in unorthodox fashion. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson dug into his old bag of tricks and dialed up a screen play for senior offensive tackle Stefano Millin — a play previously reserved for former Pitt lineman Brian O’Neill, now in the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Millin did his best O’Neill impression, catching the ball, following his blockers and diving into the end zone for the six-yard score.

That score put the Panthers ahead 34-13, and when the clock ran out three minutes later, they were officially ACC Coastal champions — a moment commemorated by dumping out the gatorade on Narduzzi.

Pickett ended up completing 23 of 30 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns, with the yardage and touchdown totals establishing new career highs. This wasn’t just the first time all season that Pickett threw for over 300 yards — it was the first time he even threw for over 200. Mack led all receivers with 105 yards and a touchdown on just three receptions, while Ollison paced Pitt’s subdued backfield with 52 yards on 18 carries.

Next up, Pitt (7-4 overall, 6-1 ACC) will travel to Miami (5-5 overall, 2-4 ACC) to take on the Hurricanes in the regular-season finale next Saturday. But most fans already have their sights set on Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., where the Panthers will officially play Clemson in the ACC Championship game Dec. 1.

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Panthers exorcise Demon Deacons 34-13, clinch Coastal