Last-minute heroics lift Pitt over EMU in Quick Lane Bowl, 34-30


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Kenny Pickett threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns in Pitt’s bowl victory over Eastern Michigan.

By Dominic Campbell, Senior Sports Writer

DETROIT — Pitt football’s performance in Thursday night’s Quick Lane Bowl featured dropped passes, inexplicable play calls, poorly timed penalties and down-to-the-wire excitement.

In other words, it perfectly encapsulated the Panthers’ entire season.

But despite committing the same mistakes that plagued them all season, the Panthers managed to escape Detroit’s Ford Field with something new for the program — their first bowl win under head coach Pat Narduzzi, defeating Eastern Michigan 34-30 thanks to a last-minute touchdown pass from junior quarterback Kenny Pickett to redshirt junior receiver Taysir Mack.

Mack’s acrobatic one-handed snag with 47 seconds left gave Pitt its first lead of the game and broke Narduzzi’s three-game bowl losing streak since taking over the team in 2015.

“Anytime you come off of a loss at the end of the season, you want to come prove it, and you want to end the season with a W,” Narduzzi said afterward. “And that’s what we did.”

A Pitt victory, however, looked far from guaranteed after the game’s opening minutes. The Eagles strung together a clinical 14-play opening drive, settling for just a field goal. Pitt’s offense responded with a four-play possession that ended with a costly Pickett fumble at the Eagles’ 46-yard line.

Eastern Michigan took advantage of the miscue, as do-it-all senior quarterback Mike Glass III scored a three-yard rushing touchdown five plays later to put the Eagles up 10-0 with 6:46 still remaining in the first quarter.

The Panthers would botch their only other scoring chance of the quarter, a 49-yard field goal attempt from redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman that sailed wide left.

After entering the game as 12.5-point favorites over this supposedly middling opponent (6-6 overall record entering Friday) from the MAC, Pitt found itself trailing by double digits after one quarter.

One advantage that fell firmly in Eastern Michigan’s favor was the crowd, which was decked out in green and white on account of the Eagles’ campus in Ypsilanti being a mere 30-minute drive from the stadium.

But the second quarter saw Pitt start to overcome the away fans and find its groove, first with a 44-yard Kessman field goal and then with a 96-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to senior receiver Maurice Ffrench — the longest pass play in program history — to tie the score at 10.

That wasn’t the only Pitt record Ffrench broke on the night. He would finish with 12 receptions to give him 96 on the season, breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s record of 92 set in 2003.

Ffrench was matched on the opposing side by a record-breaking performance from Glass III, who finished the night with 311 passing yards to break former Steeler Charlie Batch’s school yardage record set in 1997. He found sophomore wideout Quian Williams for a 50-yard touchdown pass that bounced right off the hands of Pitt junior cornerback Damarri Mathis, giving Eastern Michigan the lead right back.

The two teams traded blows once more before halftime, with Pitt first-year tailback Vincent Davis scoring an eight-yard touchdown and Eagles sophomore kicker Chad Ryland nailing a 45-yard attempt to maintain a three-point lead.

With 6:40 left in the third quarter, senior safety Damar Hamlin gave Pitt what should have been a game-changing play, intercepting a Glass III pass on first down deep within Eagles territory. But the Panthers still found a way to mess it up, performing a group celebration that resulted in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The situation nearly went from bad to worse when Davis fumbled the ball on third down, but Pitt recovered the ball to set up a long Kessman field goal. He converted the 51-yard attempt to even the score at 20.

The back-and-forth scoring continued in the fourth quarter. Glass III led his team down the field and capped the 63-yard drive off with a 10-yard touchdown pass, only for Pickett to do the same and hit first-year receiver Jared Wayne for a crucial 19-yard touchdown pass.

Glass III & Co. looked destined for the end zone once again on their next drive before stalling out at the Pitt 31, setting up a third field goal try for Ryland. Though his kick was low and unsightly, it crept through the uprights to put the Eagles up 30-27 with 6:00 remaining.

The Panthers responded with a dud. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple made the head-scratching call for a quick screen on third-and-1, losing two yards to set up a punt.

Luckily, Pitt’s defense stepped up to force a three-and-out of its own. After an Eastern Michigan punt, Pitt took over on downs at its own 9-yard line with 2:43 remaining.

And so, Pickett and the rest of the offense faced a situation not at all unfamiliar to them: needing to produce a lengthy drive with time winding down.

“There’s really no pep talk that’s going to get you ready to go there,” Pickett said. “It’s either you’re ready or you’re not. I think we were comfortable in that situation. We’ve been in it before and we just went out there and executed.”

Pickett, as he did earlier this season against UCF, rose to the occasion, delivering several clutch completions down the stretch, including two third-down connections to sophomores V’Lique Carter and Shocky Jacques-Louis.

But none of Pickett’s passes were more meaningful than the one to Mack with 47 seconds remaining, a shot at the end zone on second-and-7 from 25 yards out. After getting a step on his defender with a stop-and-go route, Mack made the play of the game by corralling the ball with one hand for the go-ahead touchdown.

The game didn’t end without further drama, however, as Eagles senior quarterback Mike Glass III was ejected for throwing two punches — one of which appeared to make contact with a referee — at Pitt players with 10 seconds on the clock. Sophomore backup Preston Hutchinson entered the game for a futile last-ditch effort on fourth down from Eastern Michigan’s own 40.

Glass’s ejection overshadowed what was an otherwise stellar performance for the senior, who completed 28 of 50 passes for two touchdowns and an interception. He also led the Eagles on the ground, running 21 times for 83 yards and another touchdown. 

Pickett, on the other side, turned in one of his most efficient outings of the season, completing 27 of 39 passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Ffrench, meanwhile, finished with a career high in receptions (12) and receiving yards (165).

The victory gives the Panthers an 8-5 final record and their first bowl win since beating Bowling Green State 30-27 in the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, also at Ford Field. Eastern Michigan drops to 6-7 and failed to capture what would’ve been its first bowl win since 1987.

After the game, redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Jalen Twyman — Pitt’s leader in sacks with 10.5 — publicly revealed that he will not enter the NFL draft and “guaranteed, 110%” that he will return to the team in 2020.

Another shocking announcement came with Narduzzi telling the postgame media that Pitt will petition to gain a fifth year of eligibility for Hamlin, who played only three games in 2016 due to injury. But if Thursday was indeed Hamlin’s Pitt finale, he finished on a high note, recording a season-high 13 tackles and his first interception of the season.

“Through all the adversity we’ve been fighting through, throughout the season, we just wanted to go out with a win,” Hamlin said. “To get our first bowl win — it’s big. It’s something we’ve never experienced before.”