Pitt football shocked the college football world by toppling No. 15 Central Florida at Heinz Field on Saturday night in a thrilling 35-34 win. Saturday showcased traditional Pitt football toughness and proved that the Panthers are better than their 1-2 record through Week 3 would have indicated. But some questions still remain as the Panthers prepare to welcome Delaware this Saturday.
Pitt came out swinging
My prediction was dead wrong — Pitt was the team to explode in the first half, finally scoring a first quarter touchdown.
The Panthers struck early and often by establishing a previously lethargic run game and utilizing the playmaking ability of junior quarterback Kenny Pickett to extend drives.
The Pitt offense that boasts so much talent and promise finally found rhythm outside of its magical second quarters. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple quite literally whipped the Knights’ defensive front with slow, methodical drives. On the other side of the ball, Pitt’s defense shut down first-year quarterback Dillon Gabriel and the “UCFast” offensive machine.
The defensive front, led by redshirt sophomore Jaylen Twyman, pressured Gabriel through the entire first half, forcing errors like an interception by junior defensive back Jason Pinnock. Pitt’s game plan flustered the still-green signal-caller. Collectively, they forced six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries.
The Knights offense averaged about 600 yards per game prior to facing Pitt but only managed 159 total yards in the first half.
Special teams and turnovers played a huge role
Credit where credit is due. The defense, even with injuries, managed to force two interceptions by Gabriel, both of which were deep in Panther territory.
UCF witnessed a complete breakdown of its team when a punt was blocked by senior receiver Aaron Mathews and returned by first-year linebacker Wendell Davis. Not only did it push Pitt’s lead to 21, but it also electrified the Pitt sideline and home crowd.
It also neutralized the Knights’ offense and allowed Pitt to play more conservatively and further cement its dominance in the run game.
Pitt showed resilience against a tough opponent
The 21-0 lead the Panthers had built crumbled as UCF scored 31 unanswered points in a span of 12 minutes.
During that run, the Knights returned the favor on special teams when junior running back Otis Anderson scored on an 85-yard punt return.
Gabriel and the Knights finally took the lead through the air, as junior wide receiver Gabriel Davis hauled in an easy touchdown while the Pitt defense was still lining up.
That would be UCF’s last touchdown of the afternoon. Pitt would then respond, scoring a touchdown off of three consecutive penalties by the UCF defense.
Pickett did not post the same gaudy numbers of weeks past, but managed to keep drives alive, taking hits and extending plays with his mobility.
The hits began to pile up on Pickett, and after coming off the field with an apparent shoulder injury, redshirt first-year quarterback Nick Patti Jr. finished the drive with a touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, cutting UCF’s lead from 10 to three.
UCF added a field goal on its next drive to extend its lead to six with 4:36 remaining and one week removed from a conservative goal-line decision in the waning minutes against Penn State, head coach Pat Narduzzi and Whipple dialed up probably the boldest play one can.
Pickett had returned to the game, and after leading his offense down to the very edge of a game winning touchdown, caught the game winning touchdown from Matthews on fourth down to tie the game, and the extra point from redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman.
An improving offense found new life when it mattered most Saturday night, even under duress. Continuing this efficiency on drives will be crucial if Pitt wants to contend in the ACC Coastal division.
Kicking struggles continue for Kessman
Pitt throughly outplayed UCF, but it was far from perfect in execution. Junior placekicker Kessman failed to score a field goal on two separate attempts. This came after a missed 19-yard field goal last week against Penn State. Now, Kessman has missed a total of five field goals in four games. Fortunately, the Panthers did not need these extra points to win. This nonetheless will be a concern moving forward.
On the positive side, he made all five extra points and clinched the lead following the now famous “Pitt Special” touchdown.