Takeaways from Pitt’s Coastal-clinching win over Wake Forest

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Takeaways from Pitt’s Coastal-clinching win over Wake Forest

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett carries the ball during the Panthers’ victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies Nov. 10.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett carries the ball during the Panthers’ victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies Nov. 10.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett carries the ball during the Panthers’ victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies Nov. 10.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett carries the ball during the Panthers’ victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies Nov. 10.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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The Pitt football team whipped Wake Forest Saturday, 34-13, to earn the Panthers’ first-ever ACC Coastal title. With the win, Pitt (7-4 overall, 6-1 ACC) secures a date with currently undefeated No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game and finally moves into the Top 25 rankings at No. 24. Here’s what Pitt fans can take away from Saturday.

We want Clemson

The biggest takeaway from Saturday’s game is that the Panthers are now Coastal champs, meaning they earn a spot in the conference’s championship game against Clemson.

Pitt still has one game left on its regular-season schedule at Miami (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) this Saturday. While the team likely isn’t overlooking this game, it’s safe to say that most fans are. After all, the Panthers have never contended for an ACC Championship since joining the conference in 2013, so this is all very new. Plus, the prospect of ruining an opposing team’s perfect season for the third straight year is enticing.

On paper, Clemson should be favored heavily to beat Pitt. The Tigers’ average scoring margin of 31.8 is just rude and ranks only behind a dominant Alabama team for second in the nation.

But unlike Alabama, this Clemson team has shown that they’re at least capable of being beaten. Sure, they demoralized Wake Forest 63-3 and Louisville 77-16. But they also eked out a two-point win over unranked Texas A&M back in Week 2 and pulled out another close 27-23 win over No. 19 Syracuse — a team that Pitt beat.

Plus, the Panthers have been here before. They shocked the nation by defeating the undefeated Clemson Tigers — who went on to win the National Championship — in 2016, then knocked off undefeated Miami last season. It only makes sense that they continue the trend this year, so if Pitt can keep things close through three quarters when the two teams face off in Charlotte Dec. 1, the Tigers should be nervous.

Kenny Pickett can throw the ball after all

Before Saturday’s game, Pitt had one of the nation’s least productive passing attacks, ranking 124th out of 130 Division I teams in yards per game with 136.1. Only a select handful of teams threw for fewer yards than the Panthers and most of them were run-heavy teams such as Army and Navy that essentially use the forward pass as a trick play.

Much of that had to do with Pitt’s backfield strength, with senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall routinely rushing for over 100 yards and providing the lion’s share of the offensive workload. In victories over Duke and Virginia Tech this season, the Panthers collectively ran for 484 yards and 492 yards, respectively, and Pitt scored over 50 points. There’s no need to pass the ball when you can run for nearly 500 yards and still win.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson also runs a conservative, pro-style offense that doesn’t ask a lot from the quarterback. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett had attempted 27 passes or more just twice this season and his role seemed to be diminishing even more in recent weeks as Pitt’s running game game increasingly became the team’s identity. Heading into the Wake Forest game, he had attempted 19 passes against Duke, 14 against Virginia and then just 11 against Virginia Tech.

But much of that lack of productivity rested on the shoulders of Pickett himself. He came into the season with sky-high expectations after leading the Panthers to an upset over Miami in his first start in last year’s season finale and had largely failed to meet those expectations thus far. Pickett often looked uncomfortable in the pocket, ducking his head and running the ball if his first option was covered. He hadn’t even thrown for over 200 yards in a game yet this season and Pitt’s coaching staff seemed to lose confidence in his ability to air the ball out.

Then against Wake Forest, a strange thing happened. The Demon Deacons’ 107th-ranked run defense suddenly looked like a brick wall, stuffing Hall and Ollison and allowing only 58 rushing yards in the first half. With Wake Forest committed to stopping the run and leading 10-6 at halftime, it was up to Pickett to win the game with his arm.

For the first time all season, Pickett rose to the occasion, turning in a career-best performance to lead Pitt to victory in a very meaningful game. In the second half alone, he threw for 169 yards — more than he’d thrown for in seven complete games this season — and a career-high three touchdowns. After throwing a touchdown pass on three consecutive drives, Pickett and the Panthers could relax in the fourth quarter as they coasted to an ACC Coastal title.

Pickett’s career-high, 316-yard performance single handedly moved Pitt’s passing offense up six spots to 118th in the nation, meaning the Panthers no longer have a bottom-10 aerial attack. But more importantly, it showed that Pickett is capable of stepping up and making throws if the backfield has a silent day. Hopefully for Pitt, Saturday’s showing becomes the new normal for Pickett, because a one-dimensional offense won’t get the job done against No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship.

Pitt’s defense is pretty good

Through six games this season, it certainly didn’t look like Pitt had a good defense. In fact, the Panthers’ D was one of the worst in the nation, allowing an average of 38 points per game — good for 110th out of 120 teams. They let Penn State put up 51 points on their home turf, allowed UCF to run wild to the tune of 45 points and conceded 38 points in a loss to lowly UNC.

But after allowing 37 points in a Week 6 overtime win over Syracuse, the defense has buckled down. In their five games since, the Panthers have allowed more than 22 just once. During that time, they’ve slowly moved up the defensive rankings to a more respectable 81st place, allowing 30.2 points per game.

It all started with a strong defensive effort against No. 3 Notre Dame. Just three days after losing senior middle linebacker and leading tackler Quintin Wirginis for the season, Pitt turned in one of its best defensive performances of the season in a near upset over the Fighting Irish. In a tough road environment, the Panthers allowed just 19 points. No other team has held Notre Dame under 20.

The Panthers came into Saturday’s game after allowing only 13 points to Virginia and 22 points to Virginia Tech, with an outlier 54-45 shootout win over Duke. They continued their stellar play against Wake Forest, keeping Pitt afloat throughout the first half while the offense struggled.

When the offense finally got going in the third quarter, the defense stayed rock solid, conceding only a field goal in the second half after allowing 10 points in the first. Pitt ultimately held the Demon Deacons to just 285 total yards — 155.1 yards fewer than their season average.

The secret to Pitt’s success has been its stout run defense. While their own running backs terrorize defenders, the Panthers neutralize opponents on the ground, allowing 105 rush yards per game over their last three games — good for 23rd in the nation over that time.

The Panthers will need to keep limiting opposing running backs if they want to stand a chance against Clemson — who possesses the 14th-best rushing attack with 247.6 yards per game — in the ACC Championship.

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