Panthers to survive the Homecoming Hurricane

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Panthers to survive the Homecoming Hurricane

Kenny Pickett has topped the 200-yard mark in every game but one this season.

Kenny Pickett has topped the 200-yard mark in every game but one this season.

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Kenny Pickett has topped the 200-yard mark in every game but one this season.

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Kenny Pickett has topped the 200-yard mark in every game but one this season.

By Nick Carlisano, Senior Staff Writer

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After back-to-back games on the road, it is appropriate that Pitt football returns to the friendly confines of Heinz Field on Homecoming Weekend. The Pittsburgh Panthers (5-2, 2-1 ACC) will host the Miami Hurricanes (3-4, 1-3 ACC) for a noon kickoff in Pittsburgh.

It will be Miami’s first trip to the Steel City since its infamous 24-14 loss to an unranked Pitt team in 2017. That loss derailed Miami’s playoff aspirations and the Hurricanes have fallen well short of 2017’s success in the following seasons.

Miami will try to bounce back after a stunning overtime loss to Georgia Tech last week. Meanwhile, Pitt continued to roll last Friday, as the Panthers notched their fourth straight victory over Syracuse in a nationally televised game.

Pitt’s offense looked exceptionally well-balanced last week — a performance that must carry over to Saturday for success against Miami’s defense. With two 1,000-yard rushers and much of the offensive line having graduated, it was obvious that the run game would take a step back this season, particularly with passing guru Mark Whipple joining the team as offensive coordinator.

But against Syracuse, junior running back A.J. Davis notched 103 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries — earning him a starting spot in the backfield against the Hurricanes come Saturday. Although no other Panther had as much success as Davis on the ground, there was a clear and concerted effort to run the ball. Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett threw the ball 33 times, while all Panthers not named Pickett totaled 34 carries.

Typically, Miami is prolific at stopping the rushing attack. The ’Canes rank 14th in the nation, allowing only 102.3 yards per game on the ground. That wasn’t the case last week, when Miami gave up over 200 to Georgia Tech, including 142 yards and a score to tailback Jordan Mason. Whipple will undoubtedly assure his skill players enough attempts to replicate the Yellow Jackets’ success with wet weather looming.

The Panthers sit three spots above Miami in rushing defense in what has been a surprising defensive season thus far. While Pitt’s defense has allowed eight touchdowns on the ground, they are holding opponents to under 100 yards a contest, one year removed from giving up 178 per game. Miami’s starting running back DeeJay Dallas will sit with an injury this week, which would typically bode well for the Panthers. However, backup Cam’Ron Harris showed he’s no slouch when he stepped in for Dallas and rushed for more than 100 yards against Georgia Tech.

But for all of the impressive individual performances this Miami roster boasts, consistency has been lacking. The Hurricanes have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride over the first half of the season. They started off strong with a close loss to a top-10 Florida Gators team and then fell to resurgent North Carolina in consecutive weeks.

They suffered another loss to Virginia Tech, which has battled massive player attrition to a 5-2 start, then turned around to hand Coastal Division front-runner Virginia its first loss of the season.

Just when it looked like Miami was going to right the ship, last week’s stunner against the Yellow Jackets happened, leaving the Hurricanes with no choice but to leave Heinz Field with a win or face the prospects of a lost season.

“Which team will show up?” is a question often reserved for Pitt, but the Panthers have been uncharacteristically consistent. The defense has been stout all season, particularly the secondary. Sophomore safety Paris Ford has come into his own and is leading the team in tackles, while Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson have provided veteran leadership and experience as seniors at safety and corner, respectively. Pitt’s front seven should thrive against Miami’s struggling offensive line, which has given up 11 sacks in the last three games and 31 total on the season.

Pickett and the air attack have also proved reliable throughout the season. The days of struggling to reach 200 yards are over — he’s topped the mark in every game but one and has gone for over 300 twice. Sure, he’s throwing the ball much more than he did last year, but he’s also doing more with his attempts. Pickett boasts a 2-1 TD-Int ratio and a 119.4 passer rating — hardly numbers to scoff at. He isn’t going to win a Heisman with his play, but as a game manager he’s certainly gotten the job done.

In many defensive-minded games, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game, and that could certainly be the case on Saturday. Pickett’s four interceptions have come in only two games this season — the loss against Virginia and the nail biter versus Duke. Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry has taken care of the ball since stepping into the starting role, and although this isn’t the Turnover Chain Miami defense of two years ago, it’s still a team capable of making offenses miserable the way it did against Virginia.

This matchup will ultimately come down to which team wants it more. The Panthers have a lot on the line — a four-game win streak, an expectant homecoming crowd and, of course, a potential second consecutive Coastal title. The Hurricanes need this one just as much after last week’s blunder against Georgia Tech dropped them to four losses. This Week 9 matchup will be an ACC dogfight if there ever was one.

Prediction

There’s just something about this Panther team that seems different — well-rounded, finding ways to win games and exciting to watch. With Miami surely down after last week, Pitt has a chance to make a statement at home and keep rolling. Neither offense will light up the scoreboard, but Pickett, with the help of an emerging run game, controls the tempo in this one as the Panther defense prevents Miami from ever getting going. Pitt repeats last year’s homecoming magic against Syracuse and picks up its fifth straight win heading into the home stretch.

Pitt 24 Miami 20

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