Pitt Special: Trickery lifts Pitt over No. 15 UCF, 35-34


Thomas J.Yang/The Pitt News

Senior receiver Maurice Ffrench makes his way into the end zone for Pitt’s second touchdown against UCF.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Last week, Pitt football was done in by a series of questionable late-game play calls at the goal line.

Hosting No. 15 UCF on Saturday, head coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple found themselves in a similar situation. This time, they dialed up a bold play when Pitt needed it most. 

Down 34-28 and needing three yards to score on fourth down, the Panthers ran a trick play similar to the “Philly Special” that the Eagles used to win Super Bowl LII. 

Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett came up to the line of scrimmage like he was calling an audible, but it was all a facade — the direct snap went to junior running back AJ Davis in the backfield. He ran left and tossed the ball to senior wideout Aaron Mathews for a reverse. Mathews then rolled out and tossed a short pass through a tight window to Pickett, who secured the ball for the game-winning touchdown.

“We practice it a lot,” Narduzzi said afterward. “It’s called the Pitt special — and it was special today.”

The play had been sitting idle in Pitt’s playbook since the second week of camp, though the Panthers typically practice it once every week during Thursday run-throughs. Finally, Whipple decided it was the perfect scenario to dust it off and shock the college football world.

“I trust [Whipple] 100 percent,” Pickett said. “He said ‘It’s going to be a walk-in.’ I said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s call it.’ We were all pumped up about it.”

The victory snapped UCF’s 27-game regular-season win streak that dated back to 2016 — something Pickett said motivated the Panthers coming in.

“It motivates us a lot. We saw how they were picked,” he said. “We watch, we see. We just use it as motivation.”

Pickett finished the game 25-47 for 224 yards and one touchdown, while also adding 12 carries for 61 yards. Pitt’s elite receiving duo of senior Maurice Ffrench and redshirt junior Taysir Mack stayed productive, combining for 13 catches, 137 yards and a touchdown.

Pitt’s defense put up another stalwart effort, especially on the front line. The Panthers recorded six sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

“I lost track of how many 4th down stops our defense had, and our defense played their tails off,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t even know who’s held them to that many points.”

On Pitt’s first possession, the Panthers did something they hadn’t done yet this season — score a touchdown in the first quarter. The offense drove the ball right down UCF’s gullet, with Pickett finding Mack for 10 and 15-yard completions to keep the chains moving. Mathews provided the highlight of the drive, catching a pass and hurdling a UCF defender to move Pitt down to the 2-yard line. Junior running back AJ Davis punched the ball in on the next play to put the Panthers up 7-0.

Defensively, the Panthers wreaked havoc on UCF’s typically high-scoring offense. Pitt’s defensive line constantly harassed Gabriel, sacking him to force a three-and-out on the Knights’ first drive. On UCF’s second possession, Pitt redshirt senior linebacker Saleem Brightwell hit Gabriel as he threw. The ball popped up into the air, leading to an easy interception for redshirt junior linebacker Phil Campbell III.

Before the interception, Pitt had been severely lacking in the takeaway department. The Panthers hadn’t forced a turnover in six games, dating back to 2018 against Miami.

Pitt’s offense nearly capitalized on the interception, moving down to UCF’s 17-yard line before facing a fourth down. The 35-yard field goal attempt was well within redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman’s range, but he pulled it left to keep the score at 7-0.

Pitt retained possession after forcing another three-and-out and strung together another quality drive. The Panthers easily advanced from their own 28 to the opposing 35 before facing a tough fourth-and-six decision for Narduzzi. After taking a timeout to deliberate, he elected to go for it. The decision paid off — Pickett found Mack on an 11-yard out route to keep Pitt’s scoring chance alive. Ffrench would punch it in two plays later on a two-yard screen pass to put Pitt up 14-0.

After allowing UCF to drive deep into opposing territory, Pitt’s defense again came up with a clutch interception. This time it was junior cornerback Jason Pinnock, who jumped a route in the end zone to make a leaping grab and give the Panthers the ball back at their own 20.

The two teams exchanged three-and-outs from there, setting up a UCF punt from its own 27. Pitt’s special teams came up with a big play, blocking the punt and returning the ball 18 yards for a touchdown. The return from redshirt first-year linebacker Wendell Davis gave Pitt a commanding 21-0 lead with 8:58 remaining in the half.

But as a team that entered Saturday averaging 51.7 points per game, UCF was bound to start scoring soon. A fumble from Pitt’s Davis gave the Knights the ball just 27 yards from the end zone, and they took advantage. Senior running back Adrian Killins Jr. bounced a handoff to the outside for an 11-yard score to bring UCF within 14 points.

The Knights tacked on three more points just before halftime, as redshirt senior kicker Dylan Barnas drilled a 43-yard field goal to make it 21-10 entering the break.

In the third quarter, UCF finally started to flash its full potential. Gabriel hooked up with junior wideout Gabriel Davis for a 65-yard bomb and the duo would hook up three plays later for a 10-yard touchdown pass.

Pitt’s ensuing possession ended with a punt, and UCF junior Otis Anderson received the ball at his own 13-yard line. Anderson proceeded to find a seam down the left side of the field and shed a couple Pitt defenders en route to an 87-yard touchdown scamper. In six minutes and 20 seconds, the Knights erased a 14-point deficit to take a 24-21 lead.

UCF extended that lead after another Pitt three-and-out, with Gabriel completing a 32-yard pass to move the Knights into scoring position, followed by a 28-yard touchdown strike to Davis. That put the visitors up 31-21 with 6:19 left in the third.

On its next drive, Pitt benefited from three UCF personal foul penalties in four plays. But the Panthers were dealt a blow when Pickett suffered a shoulder injury while scrambling, and redshirt first-year backup Nick Patti entered the game. While Pickett headed to the locker room for evaluation, Patti found redshirt sophomore receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins for a six-yard touchdown pass — marking each of their first collegiate touchdowns — to draw within three points of UCF.

Each team saw its opportunities to score in the fourth quarter but failed to convert. The Panthers drove far enough to set up a 41-yard Kessman field goal attempt, which he again missed. The Knights responded by driving to Pitt’s 15, but couldn’t convert after going for it on fourth-and-one. 

The score remained 31-28 until the 4:36 mark, when Barnas made a 28-yard field goal to give the Knights a six-point advantage.

Starting at their own 21, the Panthers started their march to the end zone. First-year running back Vincent Davis got the drive started on a high note with runs of nine and seven yards. Pitt then faced a fourth-and-five at UCF’s 35 with the game on the line. The Knights jumped offsides, giving Pitt an automatic first down.

Pickett connected with the sure-handed Mack for a 19-yard pickup down to the 11-yard line. The Panthers’ next three plays moved them to the 3-yard line, setting up the fourth-down trick connection from Mathews to Pickett that gave Pitt the lead for good.

Mathews, who played quarterback in high school at nearby Clairton, was confident in his ability to complete such a crucial pass.

“I’m always messing with coach Whipple telling him to put me in at quarterback, but it’s never anything serious,” he said.

Similarly, Pickett never doubted for a moment that he’d be able to catch the ball.

“Kenny claims he has the best hands on the team,” Mathews said. “He’s 1-for-1.”

With 56 seconds still remaining and UCF only needing a field goal to win, Pitt’s defensive line again stepped up. Redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre and redshirt junior Patrick Jones II sacked Gabriel on first down, and redshirt sophomore Jalen Twyman took him down again on third down. The Knights attempted a hook-and-lateral from their own 13-yard line but it was no use, as redshirt senior Dane Jackson made a crushing tackle to end the game.

As the clock ran out, Pitt’s players ran to the student section as some jumped into the stands to celebrate and sing the Panthers’ fight song along with the fans — or those who stayed, at least. With Pitt trailing by 10 late in the game, some started to empty out of the stadium to beat the Heinz Field traffic.

“I got a lot of love and respect for the people who stayed and stuck it out,” Pickett said. “I saw a lot of people leaving early, which pissed all of us off a little bit… so I have a lot of respect and love for the people who stayed.”

The Panthers (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC) return to Heinz Field next Saturday, where they’ll host Delaware at 12:30 p.m.