Football Takeaways: Offensive improvements spark UNC win

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Football Takeaways: Offensive improvements spark UNC win

Sophomore wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis (18) runs during a 74 yard receiving touchdown in the first half of Thursday’s game against UNC.

Sophomore wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis (18) runs during a 74 yard receiving touchdown in the first half of Thursday’s game against UNC.

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Sophomore wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis (18) runs during a 74 yard receiving touchdown in the first half of Thursday’s game against UNC.

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Sophomore wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis (18) runs during a 74 yard receiving touchdown in the first half of Thursday’s game against UNC.

By Nick Carlisano, Senior Staff Writer

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Pitt football battled it out against division foe North Carolina in a chilly contest at Heinz Field on Thursday night. The Panther offense finally awoke from its slumber to score 34 points, and five sacks from the defense allowed Pitt to eke out on top. From an offensive resurgence to a breakout performance, here are a few key takeaways from Pitt’s long-awaited victory over North Carolina.

An Offensive Awakening

The Panthers’ offense came out strong against the Heels and never looked back. All five of Pitt’s first half drives resulted in visits to UNC territory — three of the five saw the offense put points on the board. A field goal from junior kicker Alex Kessman got things going on Pitt’s first drive of the game. After a turnover on downs at the goal line, the Panthers scored touchdowns on two consecutive drives. Three more points seemed imminent on a fourth drive, but Kessman uncharacteristically botched a 26-yard kick.

The offensive fireworks slowed down in the second half, but the Panthers still managed to put a few drives together and add ten points to the scoreboard. Despite facing a third-and-14 in overtime, junior quarterback Pickett found junior receiver Taysir Mack to pick up the first down before barreling his way through defenders for what proved to be the nail in the coffin, his second rushing score of the night. 

Pitt’s inability to find the end zone had been glaringly obvious in the past two weeks. The Panthers settled for four Kessman field goals against Miami and only managed 20 points against a mediocre Georgia Tech defense. They had also been turnover prone for two weeks — Pickett doubled his season interception total from four to eight and Pitt fumbled in both games.

The Panthers shed their turnover tendencies with a clean game and not only made its way into the red zone with consistency, but put exclamation points on four of their drives. It was refreshing to see Pitt capitalize after two mediocre showings, and this type of game should serve as a massive confidence boost moving forward. 

A Shocking Performance

Despite new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple opening up the passing game and Pickett dropping back more than he ever has this season, sophomore wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis had yet to benefit coming into the matchup with North Carolina. The sophomore had recorded only eight catches for 88 yards and a score coming into the matchup with North Carolina.

Jacques-Louis stole the show in the first half, besting his season total in yards with three catches. On Pitt’s second drive, Pickett targeted Jacques-Louis in the end zone and, after both the ball being deflected and getting mauled by the defensive back, it appeared he came down with a miraculous catch for a touchdown. The catch was overturned, but a pass interference call put the Panthers at the goal line and Pickett plunged in for the score. The sophomore got his revenge two possessions later — on the first play of the drive Jacques-Louis toasted UNC’s defense, taking a perfectly placed ball from Pickett 74 yards to the house. 

Although Jacques-Louis’s face belonged on a milk carton for the duration of the second half, his first-half impact was instrumental in building Pitt’s early lead. Especially with senior Maurice Ffrench out with a broken jaw, the Panthers needed that next man up to make plays, and the sophomore did just that. It will be nothing short of intriguing to see if this outburst was an outlier or if the Panthers now have a bona fide threat who can produce consistently while Ffrench is on the mend. 

Airin’ It Out

The offense’s lack of success in recent games can be attributed to several factors, with one certainly being conservative play calling from Whipple. Big plays had been missing and the offense suffered because of it. Going into the matchup, it appeared that Pitt would have no choice but to put up points in order to keep up with first-year quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heels’ offense.

To say that Whipple, Pickett and the entire passing game stepped up to the plate would be an understatement. The junior slung the ball all over the field as Whipple chose to open up the playbook and finally allow his quarterback to make plays. Five Panther receivers had catches of longer than 28 yards as Pickett consistently delivered from inside the pocket behind an offensive line insistent on protecting its quarterback. Chunk gain after chunk gain kept the chains moving, in comparison to the screens and short throws that had been symbolic of the Panthers as of late.

Even without Ffrench, the passing game flourished — albeit against a somewhat leaky Tar Heels’ defense. Such success will leave Whipple with no choice but to continue to let Pickett do his thing for the remainder of the season. The offense finally found its groove Thursday night — and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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