Panthers to fend off the Yellow Jackets

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Panthers to fend off the Yellow Jackets

Pitt’s defense held Miami to only 80 yards rushing on the ground during Saturday’s 16-12 loss to the Hurricanes.

Pitt’s defense held Miami to only 80 yards rushing on the ground during Saturday’s 16-12 loss to the Hurricanes.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt’s defense held Miami to only 80 yards rushing on the ground during Saturday’s 16-12 loss to the Hurricanes.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt’s defense held Miami to only 80 yards rushing on the ground during Saturday’s 16-12 loss to the Hurricanes.

By Nick Carlisano, Senior Staff Writer

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Last season the Panthers shocked the world with their first ACC Coastal championship in program history. With the departure of many seniors, including star backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, it looked as if Pitt would be in for a rough follow-up season. However, Pat Narduzzi’s squad continued to surprise this year with a 5-2 start that includes an upset win over UCF — its first loss in several seasons.

It appeared as if another title could be on the horizon, but after last week’s deflating loss to Miami, it may now be out of reach. But that doesn’t mean the Panthers can’t bounce back and continue to have a successful season.

Pitt (5-3, 2-2 ACC) will look to do just that this week on the road against Georgia Tech (2-5, 1-3 ACC). The Panthers are fresh off a deflating 16-12 loss to Miami and need every win they can get to secure the Coastal division title once more. Meanwhile, despite a lost season, the Yellow Jackets will be well rested after a bye and looking to play spoiler again after upsetting Miami two weeks ago.

Last week, the Panthers couldn’t overcome Miami’s strong defensive effort despite a strong defensive game of their own. In low-scoring, defensive-minded games, the team that wins the turnover battle almost always wins the game. Miami did just that, creating three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — to their lone interception.

Where Pitt turned the ball over was particularly backbreaking. Both of junior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s interceptions were on Pitt’s own side of the field, leading to 10 of the Hurricanes’ 16 points. Then, at the end of the first quarter, just as the Panthers were finally piecing a nice drive together, sophomore receiver Taysir Mack was stripped of the ball. Pitt’s defense refused to allow Miami to capitalize, but their inability to score meant that the damage had already been done.

But Pitt’s offense should have more success against the struggling Yellow Jackets this week. Georgia Tech has given up at least 24 points in every game this season but one, so Pickett and the rest of the offense have a chance to thrive. North Carolina in particular was able to hang 38 points, nearly 600 yards of offense and four passing touchdowns in a road win versus Georgia Tech, so the Panthers are in a prime position to let the ball fly on Saturday afternoon.

Against Miami, Pickett did not turn in his sharpest performance, which can be attributed to both the wet weather and Miami’s pressure. The Hurricanes sacked him four times, including on third down on Pitt’s last drive of the game. The sack made it 4th and 15, a tough first down for any quarterback to pick up.

Pickett’s receivers didn’t do him any favors, either. Mack coughed up the ball on the Panthers’ best drive of the day, a possession that looked like it would culminate in a trip to the end zone. Senior receiver Maurice Ffrench dropped a perfectly placed ball that would have given Pitt a first down on the last drive. But he will have plenty of opportunities to respond from his first down game in Mark Whipple’s pass-heavy offense.

For all the struggles the offense suffered, Pitt’s defense put in another strong performance against the Hurricanes and continues to keep the team in games. The Yellow Jackets may be at the bottom of the ACC rankings, but their offense can still put up points. They scrapped the triple-option this year for a more traditional spread offense that has scored in bunches all season.

Georgia Tech’s passing attack hasn’t exactly thrived — quarterback James Graham leads the team with only five scores. However, the Yellow Jackets’ rushing attack has been able to flourish just as it did when the team still employed the triple-option. Tailback Jordan Mason has scored six times in seven games and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Mason was the leading man of the Jackets’ upset of Miami, pouring in more than half of the team’s rushing yards and scoring in overtime to finish the ’Canes off.

Mason was able to overcome Miami’s harsh run defense, but Pitt may present an even tougher task. The Panthers continued to control the line of scrimmage, holding Miami to under 80 yards on the ground. Pitt also refused to give up any long runs, with the Hurricanes’ longest gain going for only 14 yards. With such consistent play from the Panther front seven and Georgia Tech’s inability to move through the air, Saturday is an opportunity for Pitt’s defense to feast. If Georgia Tech finds itself unable to get to the ground game going, then it will have no choice but to resort to throwing, especially if the Panther offense finds its rhythm early.

Pitt’s secondary has played its best football in years this season, but faltered late against the Hurricanes last week. Pitt allowed Miami’s first-year quarterback Jarren Williams, who replaced sophomore N’Kosi Perry midgame, to march down the field and score in only a few plays, thanks to a pair of miserable missed tackles on the final play. Such a disappointing finish to a strong game could have lingering effects this weekend.

Luckily, Virginia lost its second game in three weeks to Louisville, keeping Pitt in contention for the Coastal. However, it becomes more evident every week that anything can happen in the ACC — Georgia Tech proved that with its win over Miami. After a tough loss in front of a Homecoming crowd, Pitt has to come out strong or risk finding itself in a closer game than necessary.

Prediction

The Yellow Jackets have momentum, coming off of a huge upset and a week of rest, while the Panthers are down after last week’s disappointment. But GT’s only source of offense, its run game, is exactly what Pitt’s defense is adept at shutting down. With the ground game struggling and the inability to stop Pitt’s offense, Georgia Tech will find itself in a hole that it can’t buzz out of. The Panthers bounce back in a big way to keep their division title hopes alive.

Pitt: 31 Georgia Tech: 17

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