Hurricanes spoil Homecoming, beat Pitt 16-12


Thomas J. Yang

Taysir Mack comforts Aaron Mathews on the sidelines following Pitt’s 16-12 Homecoming loss.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Despite the unpredictable nature of Pitt football, there are certain games in which the result feels inevitable.

Against a struggling Syracuse team last week, it felt like the Panthers were due for a comfortable win. They took care of business and downed the Orange 27-20.

On the other hand, this week’s Miami matchup had all the makings of a trap game. The Hurricanes came in 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the ACC, fresh off a loss to conference bottom-dweller Georgia Tech. Yet their roster still boasted potential and talent across the board, with a bevy of four- and five-star prospects.

Pitt, meanwhile, entered Saturday’s Homecoming game at Heinz Field with all the momentum in the world, riding a four-game win streak and on the brink of breaking into the top-25 rankings. But when the stakes are highest, the Panthers have a fatal tendency to underachieve.  

And underachieve they did, treating students and alumni alike to the full Panther experience, a maddening combination of long, beautiful drives countered by red-zone inefficiency, and stout defensive play undone by crushing turnovers on offense. Pitt failed to find the end zone and allowed Miami to score a late go-ahead touchdown to fall 16-12.

“You know, we just didn’t make enough plays, and it’s hard to win when you kick four field goals,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said afterward. “We can look back and question every call… but in the end, had too many dropped passes, not enough touchdowns, and it’s hard to win with three turnovers and on a short field, as well.”

The Panthers handily outgained their opponent, accumulating 322 yards to Miami’s 208. But the Hurricanes led in one key statistic — touchdowns, scoring two to Pitt’s zero. On two occasions, the Panthers had to settle for field goals from within the 10-yard line.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” redshirt junior center Jimmy Morrissey said. “I feel like we all feel like we’re letting [the defense] down. We can’t finish. So, yeah, it’s very upsetting to us.”

The Panthers also hurt their own cause by committing turnovers on three straight possessions, resulting in 10 points for Miami.

Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett had one of his worst showings of the season, going 18 of 32 for 146 yards and two interceptions. But those stats don’t tell the full story, as Pitt’s pass-catchers also put forth arguably their worst showing of the season, dropping at least five passes that could’ve gone for extra yardage.

Redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman was Pitt’s saving grace, making all four of his field goal tries and scoring all 12 of his team’s points.

“If we don’t get the win then the kicks don’t mean anything,” Kessman said. “As far as my confidence, I think I got my mojo back a little bit from the beginning of the season.”

The Panthers’ defense delivered its usual smothering performance, but also fell short of its trademark quarterback pressure. After entering Saturday as the national leader in sacks, Pitt recorded a season-low two sacks.

Pitt received the ball to start and strung together a couple big plays thanks to sophomore utility man V’Lique Carter, who caught passes of 30 and 16 yards to advance the Panthers into enemy territory. After stalling out at Miami’s 36, Pitt turned to the strong — but often erratic — leg of Kessman for points. He delivered, nailing the 54-yard attempt to put Pitt up 3-0. It also marked Kessman’s seventh career make of 50 or more yards, extending his own program record.

Following that drive, Pitt’s next three possessions would end in turnovers.

The first came after the Panthers retained possession at their own 9-yard line. Facing second-and-5, Pickett spotted Carter too late on a wheel route. Senior Miami linebacker Zach McCloud tipped the pass into the air, where it fell into the hands of sophomore teammate DJ Ivey for an interception along the sideline.

Miami took over on downs at Pitt’s 35-yard line and advanced as far as the 5-yard line, but the Panthers’ defense held firm from there. The Hurricanes settled for a 22-yard field goal attempt to tie the game 3-3.

The Panthers looked destined for the end zone on their next drive, moving methodically down to Miami’s 44 on nine plays for 40 yards. But redshirt junior receiver Taysir Mack coughed the ball up at the tail end of a seven-yard reception, again resetting his team’s momentum.

Pitt’s next turnover was the most head-scratching — and most costly — of the bunch. Facing third-and-5 from his own 26-yard line, Pickett launched a pass toward the middle of the field while under pressure. Senior receiver Maurice Ffrench was barely in the vicinity, and the ball fell soundly into the hands of Ivey for his second pick of the game. He returned the interception 17 yards to the Panther 17.

Gifted with an advantageous short field once again, Miami’s offense delivered. The Hurricanes quickly drove down within the 1-yard line, and sophomore running back Cam’Ron Harris dove in for a touchdown to put Miami ahead 10-3 at the 12:00 mark of the second quarter. 

The Panthers at least tacked on three more points just before halftime, as Kessman converted a 25-yard attempt after a 10-play, 80-yard drive from the offense.

Coming out of halftime, it was the Panthers who finally forced a turnover of their own. On third-and-8, redshirt sophomore quarterback N’Kosi Perry sailed a pass over his target’s head and into the mitts of Pitt junior Damarri Mathis, whose return finally gave the Panthers quality starting field position at Miami’s 17.

Pitt’s offense continued its aversion to the end zone, going three-and-out to set up a third Kessman field goal attempt. He netted it from 29 yards out to pull Pitt within one point, 10-9.

With that score holding pat into the fourth quarter, Pitt finally put together its most complete drive of the game to that point. Using a mixture of wildcat and I-formation, the Panthers pounded the ball downfield in a style reminiscent of 2018. Carter and redshirt sophomore tailback Todd Sibley Jr. handled most of the carries, moving Pitt down to the Miami 1-yard line.

But the Panthers still couldn’t cross the goal line, getting stuffed twice to set up fourth-and-1. Rather than take the risk of a fruitless possession, Narduzzi decided to trust his defense and settle for a field goal. After taking a delay of game penalty and committing a false start, Pitt took a 12-10 lead on Kessman’s 29-yard make — his fourth of the game.

For their last drive, the Hurricanes swapped out the struggling Perry for redshirt first-year quarterback Jarren Williams. The move paid off, as Williams made a series of clutch throws to help his team win the game. He showed poise on fourth-and-1 from Miami’s 47, delivering a quick screen pass to keep the chains moving. And on second-and-10 from Pitt’s 32, he thread the needle to redshirt senior receiver KJ Osborn, who shed two tackles en route to a 32-yard game-winning touchdown.

After an unsuccessful Miami 2-point conversion, Pitt got the ball back at its own 25 with 58 seconds left for one last desperation drive. Missed catches continued to plague the Panthers, as Carter and Ffrench dropped passes on consecutive downs that would’ve both moved the chains. Pickett was sacked on third down and his fourth-down attempt fell incomplete, ending the game.

Next up for the Panthers (5-3 overall, 2-2 ACC) is a road game at Georgia Tech next Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 4 p.m.