NC State stuns No. 24 Pitt 30-29, Panthers first loss of 2020

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Kaycee Orwig | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt first-year Jordan Addison scored his third touchdown of the season in Pitt’s 30-29 loss to NC State

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

A weak offensive line coming off a blowout loss to a shorthanded squad played at Heinz Field against the nation’s best pass rush fresh off a top-25 win. This matchup spelled blowout from the beginning.

But as the old saying goes — that’s why you play the game. Who would’ve expected this to be Pitt’s biggest scare of the season?

The No. 24 Panthers (3-1, 2-1 ACC) couldn’t overcome an awful start, falling 30-29 to the NC State Wolfpack (2-1, 2-1 ACC). The Panthers couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity for their first 4-0 start since 2000.

For the second week in a row, the Panthers had no players missing due to COVID-19 protocols. Head coach Pat Narduzzi emphasized after last week’s game that the team couldn’t take its early successes for granted.

“I got to constantly remind them that you’re one game away,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. Just because we’re good right now doesn’t mean we’ll be good in the future.”

It didn’t take long for the Pitt offense to strike. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett completed a 75-yard touchdown heave to first-year receiver Jordan Addison on the Panthers’ second play from scrimmage — without an NC State defender in sight.

[Photos: Pitt football vs. NC State]

Defensive penalties from redshirt senior defensive back Damar Hamlin and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Calijah Kancey extended the Wolfpack’s first drive, and NC State redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary took advantage — finding redshirt senior tight end Cary Angeline in the end zone for six. Pitt hadn’t given up points on any of its opponent’s previous opening drives this season.

Penalties continued to kill the Panther defense. Kancey committed facemask and offsides infractions within a few plays of each other. Later that drive, redshirt sophomore cornerback Marquise Williams’ passing interference led to a 39-yard field goal that put the Wolfpack ahead 10-7. Pitt had six penalties for 60 yards in the first quarter. The Panthers, who had committed 17 penalties for 146 yards in their first three games of the season, drew nine flags for 85 yards on defense alone in the first half.

“We gave them the game with those offsides penalties,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Patrick Jones II said. “We kept having penalties we shouldn’t have had. We should’ve done better in practice with it and that’s something we just gotta go in next week and work on. We can’t have that no more.”

Questionable play-calling from offensive coordinator Mark Whipple stagnated Pitt’s offense after the opening touchdown. A string of three-and-outs kept the Panthers behind in the field position battle and a 35-yard touchdown catch gave the Wolfpack a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter. Pitt narrowly avoided a 17-point deficit when a would-be touchdown slipped through Wolfpack receiver Anthony Smith’s hands a few minutes later.

Pickett and the Panther offense finally got moving late in the first half, but couldn’t capitalize in the red zone. Pickett threw a pick-six one on one of those opportunities, but a roughing the passer and targeting penalty brought it back, and resulted in Wolfpack defensive back Joshua Pierre-Louis’ ejection. Kessman chipped in two short field goals, narrowing the deficit to 17-13 at halftime. 

After missing his first three field goals of the season, Kessman has made his last six. He moved into second place in Pitt’s career field goal list (52) on Saturday.

The red zone woes carried into the second half. After two consecutive big plays from graduate transfer wide receiver DJ Turner, Pitt had first and goal from the 1-yard line with a chance to take its first lead since the first quarter. Running backs Vincent Davis and Daniel Carter got stuffed on first, third and fourth down, and Pitt came away empty handed. Narduzzi praised the Wolfpack’s defense for its performance in the red zone.

“Obviously there’s things that we need to do better when we get down there and we’ve focused on it more than we ever have,” Narduzzi said. “Give them credit now, they’ve got a good defense and they played well today. We had our opportunities, and we’ve just got to finish.”

Turner and redshirt senior Taysir Mack carried the receiving corps in the second half after Addison left the game with an injury. Mack made two huge grabs to keep the Panthers’ third-quarter go-ahead drive alive, including one on third down where his legs were taken out from under him in midair.

Turner thought he had a touchdown on a reaching snag a few plays later, but refs eventually ruled him 1 yard short once again. Kenny Pickett plunged into the endzone himself this time, and the Panthers took a 20-17 lead.

With Pitt’s defense staying rigid, Turner broke off for another big gain, setting up a 42-yard Kessman field goal to give the Panthers a six-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Turner, who caught eight passes for a career-high 186 yards, took over in the second half as the primary receiver.

“DJ played great,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t have Jordan Addison in the second half and DJ stepped in, and DJ is a good football player, and he played a great game.”

Pitt hadn’t allowed a single point in the fourth quarter this season before Saturday. But the Wolfpack completely dismantled Pitt’s pass coverage in the final period, marching down the field for two crucial touchdowns. The first came with 8:16 to play — Leary found Angeline wide open for their second end zone connection of the day to put the Wolfpack up one.

Pickett marched the Panthers down the field on their ensuing possession, eating up the clock and making strong plays on third and fourth down. Pickett snuck the ball in again from the 1-yard line to give the Panthers a 29-24 lead with under two minutes to play, but Mack dropped a crucial two-point attempt opportunity that proved pivotal by the game’s end.

With his running backs failing to provide any help, Pickett led Pitt in rushing with 40 yards and two scores — adding on to an impressive statline that saw Pickett complete 21 of 37 passes for a career-high 411 yards and a touchdown.

“They were doing a good job of stopping the run,” Pickett said. “DJ had a great game and our guys were getting open. I just had to put it on them.”

Redshirt senior center Jimmy Morrissey said the offensive line caused the issues on the ground.

“I’m responsible for the o-line, we take responsibility for the run game,” Morrissey said. “We’ll be better next weekend.”

Despite having no timeouts, Leary picked apart Pitt’s secondary for four consecutive completions on the game’s final drive to put the Wolfpack in striking distance. Facing fourth and 9 with under a minute to play, Leary found redshirt junior Thayer Thomas to keep the drive alive. After a defensive holding penalty moved NC State to the Pitt 13-yard line, Leary put the dagger into Pitt fans’ hearts with a perfect pass and catch to senior Emeka Emezie, giving the Wolfpack a 30-29 lead with 23 seconds to play.

Shortly after the Wolfpack brought down Turner to officially clinch the win, tensions ran wild on the sideline. Jones and fellow Pitt defensive lineman Devin Danielson had to be separated by teammates as a shoving match broke out. NC State contained Pitt’s defensive line on Saturday, who leads the nation in sacks, holding them to a season-low of two.

Pitt will look to regroup next week for its first road test of the season, traveling to Massachusetts to play Boston College. Jones promised Pitt fans would see a different defense there then Saturday’s.

“It’s not a feeling we plan on feeling again, so next week we’re gonna bring it,” Jones said. “We’re gonna bring our A-game. We’re not gonna have none of the mistakes we had today, I’m going to make sure of it.”

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