Pitt’s heroic second half defense earns 23-20 win over No. 24 Louisville

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

The Panthers defeated No. 24 Louisville 23-20 on Saturday.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

The last time two top-25 teams squared off at Heinz Field, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” topped the charts, Barack Obama was president and Bill Stull claimed Pitt’s starting quarterback position.

Pitt fans left that Dec. 5, 2009, game heartbroken from a 45-44 loss to Cincinnati. While Saturday’s game against Louisville had no fans in attendance, the Pitt faithful enjoyed a better result from their own homes, as the No. 21 Panthers (3-0, 2-0 ACC) knocked off the No. 24 Cardinals (1-2, 0-2 ACC) 23-20 to remain undefeated.

Pitt debuted its highly anticipated steel gray uniforms Saturday, packed with meaning in every detail.

The most impressive feat of the Panthers’ week came an hour prior to the game, when Pitt announced no players would miss Saturday’s game for COVID-related protocols. The Panthers had seven players absent from the season opener against Austin Peay, and reduced that number to three the next week against Syracuse.

In a battle of two teams with paradoxical structures, Pitt’s staunch defense faced the task of stopping an explosive Louisville offense, while the Panthers’ inconsistent offense got a chance against a weak Cardinal defense.

Pitt’s offense got the ball moving quickly, as big plays from sophomore running back Vincent Davis and first-year Jordan Addison put the Panthers in Louisville territory.

Redshirt senior Alex Kessman, after missing three field goal attempts in the first two games of the season, made a 45-yarder to put the Panthers on the board first. After Pitt’s defense forced a three-and-out on the Cardinals’ first possession, Kessman made a 41-yard field goal to put the Panthers up 6-0. Kessman credited the change to his mental approach for fixing his slump on Saturday.

“I went back to what I was doing at the beginning of camp,” Kessman said, “where I would meditate every day and kind of slow the world down a little bit for myself.”

The Panthers’ defensive line lived up to its reputation in the first quarter, giving Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham no comfort in the pocket. The Panthers forced another three-and-out, and Pitt’s offense finally capitalized. An eight-yard touchdown reception by Addison capped off a 12-play, 60-yard Panther drive that gave Pitt a 13-0 first-quarter lead.

It didn’t take long for Louisville to respond. The Cardinals’ quick offense struck back on its first play of the next possession, as Javian Hawkins broke through a Panther blitz for a 75-yard touchdown run to get Louisville on the board.

The Cardinals continued to attack the Panthers’ early lead. After a Louisville field goal, Pitt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett took a hit as he threw and coughed the ball up. Louisville recovered, and the ACC’s leading receiver Tutu Atwell found the end zone on the ensuing possession to give the Cardinals 17 consecutive points and a four-point lead in the second quarter.

In desperate need of a score, Pickett and his receiving corps stepped up with several crucial plays. Addison, the Panthers’ breakout offensive star in September, kept a potential interception away from a Cardinals defender for a first down reception. Redshirt senior wideout Taysir Mack, in his first game back from injury, craftily avoided touching the turf on what looked like a successful tackle a few plays later, jogging his way into the end zone to give Pitt a 20-17 lead before halftime.

“[Mack’s] my guy,” Pickett said. “I’ve been with him through a lot. I was really happy to see him out on the practice field this week. He was running really well, he’s got fresh legs. I knew he was gonna have a big game, I just had to get the ball in his hands.”

The Panthers continued their momentum in the second half with redshirt sophomore cornerback Marquis Williams picking off Cunningham’s deep heave on the Cardinals’ first possession. Kessman remained perfect — his 42-yard field goal put the Panthers up 23-17.

Both teams struggled to get their offenses rolling in the second half. Panthers defensive linemen Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II terrorized the Cardinal offensive line, combining for five sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble on Saturday.

“They kind of just let me and Rashad roll with it,” Jones said. “They just let us rush off the edge and pretty much match up against them. Me and Rashad, we went out there and balled and won our matchups.”

A nifty fake punt play call extended a Cardinals drive, resulting in a field goal to cut the lead to three going into the fourth quarter. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi blamed himself for the fake punt and said he should’ve taken the Panthers out of punt safe formation after the Cardinals called timeout.

“That field goal was all on me,” Narduzzi said. “That’s a dumb move, and shoot, if I wanted to waste another timeout I would have, but I didn’t want to waste another timeout. I thought we’d stop them.”

But the offensive mistakes kept piling up for both teams. A high throw from Pickett went through the hands of Addison into an interception deep in Louisville territory. Senior captain cornerback Damar Hamlin intercepted another Cunningham pass just a few plays later. Pitt couldn’t capitalize though — senior wide receiver DJ Turner dropped a scrambling throw from Pickett on fourth down.

Addison dropped a deep third-down heave from Pickett late in the fourth quarter as well. Narduzzi said he isn’t worried about his receivers’ hands, after drops plagued the Panthers their entire 2019 season.

“I don’t know about your percentages, but receivers are making plays when they need to,” Narduzzi said. “I’m not concerned. It’s called win. Just win. No concern there, just like I’m not concerned if Kessman is going to miss a couple field goals. We’re not going to be perfect.”

The game came down to Louisville’s two-minute offense. First-year Calijah Kancey chased Cunningham on fourth down, forcing an errant throw to Atwell that Pitt senior cornerback Jason Pinnock picked off to seal the win.

“[Atwell’s] eyes kind of gave it away for me,” Pinnock said. “That’s their go-to guy. We checked kind of a cover-two based off of a release, and we got them.”

Cunningham, whose head hit the ground at a violent angle on the play, had to be carted off the field with his neck in a collar, ending the game on a scary scene.

“Our prayers go out to Malik,” Narduzzi said. “Never like to see a game end like that with a minute and 15 or whatever is on the clock.”

Reports after the game presented good news — Cunningham was “moving everything and has feeling.”

Pitt’s defense held the Cardinals, who put up 516 yards of offense in their loss to Miami last week, to 223 yards. Louisville only gained 89 yards in the second half. Pinnock praised the role Pitt’s defense has taken to decide close games so far, keeping opponents out of the end zone even after Panther turnovers.

“I love the pressure, I came from pressure,” Pinnock said. “We’re out there dancing. Our defense loves it. We practice sudden change and we embrace it.”

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