Column | Takeaways from Pitt football’s win on the road against Tennessee

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt football hasn’t won more than eight games in a season since 2009, but this might be the season they end the double-digit win drought, argues senior staff writer Kyle Saxon.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

Despite a raucous crowd at Neyland Stadium, the Panthers pulled out a hard-fought win behind super-senior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s near-flawless showing.

Here are five takeaways from Pitt’s 41-34 win over Tennessee on Saturday.

Kenny Pickett gives Pitt a chance to beat anybody in the ACC

It’s safe to say Pickett’s decision to return to Pitt for another year will earn him some extra money in next year’s NFL Draft. Pickett put together one of the most impressive showings of his collegiate career last weekend at Neyland Stadium.

Despite facing an early 10-0 deficit heading into the second quarter, Pickett was unfazed — leading the Panthers to a 27-point second quarter. The Panthers went to the locker room with a 27-20 lead and all the momentum, thanks to Pickett’s stellar performance. At the break, Pickett was 18 for 23 for 200 yards and one touchdown and an eye-popping 8 for 9 passing on third downs.

The fifth-year senior showed poise in a hostile environment, with a near flawless performance. He stayed in the pocket and progressed through his reads, kept plays alive with his legs and made tough throws throughout the entire game. Pickett did just about everything Narduzzi asked for out of his quarterback.

Pickett capped off the day with a touchdown pass to Jordan Addison, giving the Panthers a two-touchdown lead to put the game out of reach. This throw summed up his entire performance in just one play. He stepped up when his team needed him most and threw a perfect ball that only his receiver could get to.

With Pickett under center, the Panthers have a shot to beat anybody in the ACC and can challenge for the conference title.

Whipple needs to be more aggressive early

The Panthers fell behind early due to conservative play-calling, which led to three consecutive three-and-outs. The Panthers were unable to move the ball upfield early on. Soon after, the Volunteers blocked a punt and set themselves up on the 2-yard line to start the game offensively. The Vols capitalized on the next play with an early touchdown.

Opening up the game in a conservative manner led to a nightmare of a start. Facing a two-score deficit on the road in front of 80,000 plus fans is a recipe for disaster, but one the Panthers overcame. A start like this may be insurmountable in the future — the Panthers must be aggressive out of the gates.

When the Panthers went down 10-0 early, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple opened up the playbook. Once he did, Pickett got into a rhythm, and it paid off. Whipple’s offense was very good Saturday, putting up 41 points on the road. But asking the team to play from behind may put the offense in too deep of a hole to dig out of going forward.

Pickett is experienced and one of the most talented quarterbacks in the conference. He’s seen pretty much everything in terms of defensive schemes at the college level — Whipple shouldn’t wait to open things up. It’s imperative to be aggressive from the get-go.

Better teams will make Pitt pay if it opens up games like it did against Tennessee. With Pickett under center, surrounded by a lethal collection of weapons, Whipple needs to put the pressure on the opponent from the first snap — not vice-versa.

Special Teams issues must be shored up

To put it bluntly, Pitt’s special teams were a mess against Tennessee. The issues need to be resolved fast, or they could wind up costing the Panthers down the road.

Sophomore kick returner Jaylon Barden made a few questionable decisions in the first quarter of the game before redshirt senior wideout Melquise Stovall replaced him. To open the game, Barden fielded the opening kick at the 3-yard line and only made it out to the 16-yard line, leaving the Panthers backed up on their first drive. Later in the first quarter, Barden was tackled at the 8-yard line after taking a kickoff out of his own end zone.

Pitt’s kick coverage unit was very poor as Tennessee return man senior Velus Jones Jr. had two kick returns of 35 yards or more in the second half. Both drives resulted in touchdowns as the Vols started each drive with great field position.

Senior Kirk Christodoulou is one of the best punters in the country and was great all day — until his punt with 5:33 remaining in the game. He was backed up in his own endzone, which isn’t an easy situation in the slightest, but his punt went for just 31 yards resulting in Tennessee starting their drive at the Pitt 34-yard line.

The dismal special teams performance almost proved costly, and the issues need to be cleaned up ahead of conference play.

The Pitt Defense stepped up when it mattered

Fans may look at the box score and assume the defense played poorly, but that really wasn’t the case Saturday. They were actually pretty impressive.

The special teams unit didn’t do the Panther defense any favors, and neither did the offense on its first few drives. The defense’s first drive started on their own 2-yard line after the Volunteers blocked Christodoulou’s punt. The Volunteers’ third drive of the game started at midfield, giving the Panther defense a little breathing room before surrendering a field goal. 

Both Tennessee touchdowns in the second half came on the heels of long returns, with each drive starting around Tennessee’s own 40-yard line.

The Panther defense did give up some big plays, with a decent amount of missed tackles in space as well as busted coverages. But when it mattered most, they showed up.

Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker had the Vols knocking on the doorstep at Pitt’s 3-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. The Volunteer offense lined up for a fourth-and-one play on the brink of the endzone. But a pair of Panther super-senior linebackers — Chase Pine and John Petrishen — collapsed off the edge and brought Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright down for a loss, and Pitt took over on downs.

Following an uncharacteristically poor Christodoulou punt just two minutes later, Tennessee took over at Pitt’s 34-yard line. But Pitt safety Brandon Hill picked off Hooker two plays later, resulting in the Panther offense icing the game away and coming away with a victory.

The win over Tennessee cannot be understated

This was a huge win for Pitt.

This wasn’t the Tennessee of old. This is a Tennessee team that finished 3-7 last year, under a first-year head coach in Josh Heupel.

With that said, it’s extremely tough to win on the road in College Football — even more so at Neyland Stadium. Saturday was Pitt’s first Power 5 non-conference road win since Notre Dame in 2008.

In past years we’ve seen Pitt teams go down double digits early and never recover. Not this time though, and that certainly means something.

Pitt has not started out 4-0 since 2000. After the victory over Tennessee, the Panthers certainly have a path to achieve that feat for the first time in over two decades with games against Western Michigan and New Hampshire looming.

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