Panthers send message against UNH, gain confidence before ACC play

Pitt+Panther+Vincent+Davis+carries+the+ball+down+the+sideline+during+the+Pitt+vs.+UNH+football+game.

Patrick Cavanagh | Staff Photographer

Pitt Panther Vincent Davis carries the ball down the sideline during the Pitt vs. UNH football game.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Just when it seemed like head coach Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers had shown their true colors, the team put up a dominating performance to draw the fans back in before ACC play. The Panthers (3-1, 0-0 ACC) dominated the UNH Wildcats (3-1, 2-0 CAA) 77-7 on Saturday.

The Panthers broke multiple records in the contest, including the most yards of total offense in a single game. Narduzzi even expressed some remorse about the final score.

“New Hampshire is a good football team,” Narduzzi said. “I almost feel bad it went down like that. [UNH Head Coach] Sean McDonnell is a great guy. But we did what we had to do.”

Before they get too excited, fans need to keep in mind who the opponent was heading into ACC play this week. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from this week’s victory over UNH.

Kenny Pickett is the real deal.

Redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett posted a near-perfect statline against UNH, throwing only four incompletions en route to 403 yards and five touchdowns. The super-senior added another touchdown on the ground in his six-touchdown performance.

While the performance does have an asterisk next to it due to the competition, Pickett’s maturity and decision making shone through this weekend.

Panther fans stood by Pickett for five years now, and the progress in his game over the past few seasons is evident. He isn’t trying to force passes like he once did. He isn’t taking sacks in bad situations. He isn’t making immature mistakes. Pickett is finally playing real football.

Another sign of maturity from Pickett is his ability to lead the Panthers as a captain. Pickett said he and some of the other captains called a players-only meeting after the loss to Western Michigan to try and sort out some of the team’s issues.

“We had a meeting on Sunday [after the WMU game],” Pickett said. “Just a players meeting. Everyone got on the same page and we want to keep it going now into ACC play … [the meeting was] a captains’ thing, just something we felt needed to be done.”

Pickett’s performance this season has vaulted him into the conversation about the nation’s best quarterbacks. If Pickett can sustain his performance from the first third of the season, he could be heralded as a top NFL Draft prospect come this season’s end.

Rodney Hammond could be the team’s best option in the backfield.

There is no debate on whether or not the Panther running game has been subpar this season — it has been. But Panther fans got a glimpse of a potential solution to their running game woes on Saturday. First-year Rodney Hammond saw a major uptick in carries in the game against UNH and made the most of the opportunity.

“When I get the chance, I’m just going to do what I can do,” Hammond said. “Any opportunity I get, I take advantage of it.”

And that’s exactly what Hammond did. The first-year ran the football 17 times for 100 yards and three touchdowns. What was most impressive, though, was the way he ran the ball. Hammond hit the holes his blockers made for him hard and fast, earning praise from Pickett.

“Rodney’s got some juice when he runs,” Pickett said. “He’s tough to bring down, he’s great after contact. I know the O-Line loves him because he hits the hole hard … I’m proud of him, he works hard.”

Hammond’s first touchdown came from just a few yards out, but when he was wrapped up in the backfield, most thought the play was over. But Hammond never stopped churning his legs and pushed the pile into the endzone.

Narduzzi has been searching for the solution in the running game for four weeks now, and after trying some rotations at running back to no avail, maybe Hammond is the spark he’s been looking for.

Punt return is a glaring issue.

Redshirt senior punt returner Melquise Stovall made Panther fans hold their breath on more than one occasion this season. On the five punts he’s attempted to return this year, Stovall registered just 11 yards, including a net loss of seven yards this past week.

The only thing more concerning than the lack of big-play ability is the Pitt returners’ decision-making. Punts will consistently bounce in front of the returner, with the defense just a few yards in front of them. They often attempt to grab the loose ball and return it, putting themselves at risk of fumbling the ball.

At the lowest levels of football, coaches teach returners to let the ball roll if the defense is that close and the ball already bounced, yet Stovall consistently tries to make magic out of an unideal situation. Luckily for him, he hasn’t fumbled the ball yet this season. But if he tries to do this in conference games, he shouldn’t see the field.

Whether it comes down to practicing it more during the week or trying a new guy at returner, Narduzzi needs to switch something up before this team pays for a poor decision when the opposing team sends it deep.

Pitt wanted to send a message with this win.

Pickett said he and his teammates came into the game “pissed off” and it showed Saturday.

Narduzzi refused to take his foot off of the gas — continuing to air the ball out well into the second half despite a sizable lead. But Narduzzi’s decision to leave Pickett in to start the second half with a massive lead, sent a strong message — the Panthers were there to prove they wouldn’t let one loss ruin their season.

“Me and [offensive coordinator Mark Whipple] talked about it coming down the tunnel [before the second half] and I just said ‘he’s coming out for the first series — we’re going to start the second half just like we started the first half,’” Narduzzi said.

Leaving Pickett in the game, despite risk of injury, certainly raised some eyebrows but as Narduzzi said “they did what they had to do” — send a message that the loss to Western Michigan was not something that would linger.

“At some point you have to move on [from the loss to WMU],” redshirt junior linebacker Wendell Davis said. “We just made a point of ‘let’s take that sour taste out of our mouth and come out firing this game.’”

Pitt enters conference play in control of its own destiny. The rest of the Coastal Division has either already lost a conference game or will play Pitt down the road — if the Panthers win out, they will be the Coastal champions and book a trip to Charlotte.

The journey to an ACC title starts this Saturday on the road against Georgia Tech. The ACC battle will kickoff at noon and air on ACCN.

“The pre-season is over,” Narduzzi said. “We get to go into ACC play now and I think [our players] are excited about that.”

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