Ffrench connection leads Pitt football over Ohio, 20-10


Thomas J.Yang/The Pitt News

Maurice Ffrench blows by the Ohio defense on his way to a 74-yard touchdown.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

20-10. That was the final score of Pitt’s football game against Ohio on Saturday morning at Heinz Field, though the fairly narrow margin of victory undermines just how much the Panthers dominated their opponent. A more indicative score would be 481-212 — the amount of yards Pitt gained as opposed to the Bobcats, who struggled all game to go anywhere against the tenacious Panther defense.

“I thought our defense played outstanding,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “That’s a good football team with a good offense, really good offense, and again, that’s a solid victory.”

Redshirt sophomore Jalen Twyman led Pitt’s defensive effort, sacking Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke a whopping three times, marking the most for a Pitt defensive tackle since Aaron Donald against Utah in 2011. On the day, the Panthers recorded six sacks and four more tackles for loss.

Twyman saw a greater role after it was announced earlier this week that redshirt junior defensive lineman Keyshon Camp would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. Redshirt junior defensive end Rashad Weaver already suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, making it imperative for a new player on the defense to step up.

“We took it as a great challenge,” Twyman said. “We always prepare for that moment, like hey, ‘Next man up.’”

Pitt’s offense made strides as well, though it may not have shown on the scoreboard. Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett set a new career high with 26 completions on 37 attempts, passing for 321 yards and a touchdown. Senior wideout Maurice Ffrench also set career highs with 10 receptions and 138 yards, quickly establishing himself as Pickett’s security blanket. The duo’s 74-yard aerial connection in the second quarter gave the Panthers a 10-point cushion they would never relinquish.

“Getting Maurice more touches in space was an emphasis in the game plan,” Pickett said. “Let him go do his thing — obviously, it was a positive.”

Narduzzi was complimentary of his quarterback, saying that he showed more poise than in Pitt’s Week 1 loss to Virginia.

“I do think we made some major improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. I thought Kenny did a heck of a job throwing the ball,” Narduzzi said. “I thought his feet were good in the pocket.” 

The Panthers got off to a shaky start to begin the game, committing a false start penalty followed by a Pickett sack en route to a three-and-out. But the offense started to show signs of life on its next possession, driving 79 yards on 12 plays to Ohio’s 9 yard line. Pitt dodged a bullet when a Pickett pass into triple coverage was dropped by the Ohio defender, and the Panthers came away with a 27-yard field goal on the next play to go up 3-0.

Aside from that drive, Pitt’s offense was stagnant throughout the first quarter. The Panthers’ defense, however, kept them in the game with a suffocating performance, never allowing the Bobcats to cross the 34 yard line.

The offense found its rhythm in the second quarter, starting immediately with a deep pass from Pickett to Ffrench. After failing to connect on several long balls in Week 1, Pickett managed to hit Ffrench right in stride on this one. Ffrench did the rest, showing off his wheels as he outran Ohio’s defense to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.

After forcing a Bobcat three-and-out, Pitt’s offense got right back to work. Starting with good field position at the Ohio 47, Pickett methodically led the Panthers downfield. He completed all six of his passes — including three to tight ends — for 41 yards to lead Pitt down to the 3 yard line. True freshman back Vincent Davis punched it in from there, putting the Panthers up 17-0 with 9:28 left in the half.

Ohio finally broke into Pitt territory on its next drive, with Rourke finding redshirt freshman receiver Jerome Buckner for a 45-yard completion down to the 13 yard line. The Panthers caught another break when on the next play, Buckner dropped an uncontested pass for what would’ve been a touchdown. The Bobcats instead settled for a field goal to make it 17-3 going into the half.

At the halftime break, Pickett’s numbers — 17 of 24 for 225 yards and a touchdown — were already better than his full-game Week 1 stats. Ffrench also stuffed the first-half stat sheet, hauling in seven receptions for 118 yards and a score.

Pitt’s defense continued to dominate to start the second half, sacking Rourke three times over Ohio’s first two possessions. 

The Panther offense looked particularly impressive on its second drive of the third quarter, converting one difficult play after another. It started with Pickett finding redshirt senior tight end Will Gragg, who was hit hard immediately after the catch but held on for a first down. On the next play, Pickett threw a back-shoulder dime to redshirt senior receiver Tre Tipton, who made a contested grab along the sideline. Redshirt junior Taysir Mack followed that up with a 22-yard diving catch over the middle, making three straight highlight-reel plays from Pitt pass-catchers.

After the game, Ffrench talked about the friendly competition among Pitt’s wideouts to one-up each other.

“In our room, we definitely are competitive with one another,” he said. “If one person makes a catch — alright, I’m gonna make two… I’m gonna up you every time. I feel like that’s a good way to have our room because we all just want to compete and get the ball.”

The offense stalled out from its position after those catches, and redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman converted on a 41-yard field goal attempt to put Pitt up 20-3 with 6:23 remaining in the third.

Ohio responded with its first touchdown drive of the game, a quick possession marked by Rourke completions of 27 and 34 yards. Tuggle ran it in from seven yards out to cap off a five-play, 75-yard drive that made it 20-10.

The game became a defensive stalemate from there, with Pitt playing conservatively to preserve its two-score lead. Though the offense failed to gain much ground, redshirt sophomore punter Kirk Christodoulou ensured that the Panthers won the field position battle. He consistently pinned Ohio within its own 20-yard line, giving the Bobcats the ball to start at their own 15, 8 and 6 yard line on their last three possessions.

With Ohio unable to get out of its own territory, Pitt’s lead never felt in danger. The Panthers got the ball back with 7:05 remaining and milked out the clock with a style reminiscent of 2018, handing the ball off repeatedly to Vincent Davis and junior AJ Davis. The duo consistently picked up chunks of yardage as the offense chugged down to the opposing 24.  All Ohio could do was watch helplessly as the game clock eventually showed zeroes.

It remains to be seen whether Vincent Davis officially usurped redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. on the running back depth chart, but it sure looked like it in Saturday’s game. AJ Davis paced the unit with 13 carries and 89 yards while Vincent was close behind with 12 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown.

“You know, our plan is every week, we’re going to look for the hot hand,” Narduzzi said of his backfield strategy. “We’re going to play the guy that’s hot. If a guy looks like he’s running it hard and he’s got some juice to him, we’re going to play that guy, so it’ll just be by committee until we find out who our dude is. But Vincent Davis did show up today and we kind of saw that during the last couple weeks of practice.”

With the result, the Panthers and Bobcats both became 1-1 on the season. Pitt’s next test comes on the road at Penn State on Saturday at noon. The game will be the last of the renewed rivalry for the foreseeable future.