Pickett picks apart Clemson, Pitt defeats Tigers 27-17

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Sophomore wide receiver Jaylon Barden (10) lunges away from a Clemson defender and toward the sideline at Saturday’s game at Heinz Field.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

This story has been updated. 

Redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett said he came back for a final year for big games — such as matchups with the ACC powerhouse Clemson Tigers. This was Pickett’s final chance to trounce the Tigers, and he said he didn’t want to waste it earlier in the week.

“It’s my last chance to get them at home so I want to go out there and play the best I can,” Pickett said.

And that’s just what he did.

The Panthers welcomed the Clemson Tigers to Heinz Field for the teams’ fifth all-time matchup. In what was anticipated to be the Panthers’ biggest game of the year, the Panthers took down the Clemson Tigers 27-17.

Similar to many of the Panthers’ prior games, the Panthers and Tigers traded three-and-outs, neither offense showing much prowess on the first couple of drives. The Panther Pitt made their presence known early. On a crucial third-and-three play, the Panther defense needed some help and got it from the fans.

The Panther Pitt rained down cheers onto the Tiger offense, making it tough to communicate, and a Clemson offensive lineman jumped early to back his team up a couple of yards. Pitt forced an incompletion on the next play, and the Tigers punted. Head coach Pat Narduzzi started off his press conference thanking the fans for their help.

“First off I want to thank the crowd out there today,” Narduzzi said. “They were outstanding. The Panther Pitt, I’m not sure if I’ve seen them like that…They take part in this win. It’s everybody involved. It takes everybody. I was really proud of that crowd.”

The total attendance for the game was a season-high 60,594, according to Pitt Athletics.

Pickett and the offense marched out for another opportunity but failed to make much progress down the field. The offensive line held up well for much of the first half, granting Pickett the time to make multiple reads. But the Clemson secondary refused to fold.

The Panther secondary had their share of flashy plays, though. Deep inside Panther territory, sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei lofted a fade to the right side of the field. Senior defensive back Damarri Mathis ran with his receiver, high-pointed the football and brought it down for an interception.

After a couple of defensive stops for both sides, the Tigers and Uiagalelei started to hit its stride. Clemson embarked on an eight play, 80-yard scoring drive, which they capped off with a one-yard touchdown rush to get on the board first.

It took Pitt a couple of more drives on offense to work out the kinks, but on its second to last drive of the half, Pickett and sophomore receiver Jordan Addison put on a show. The offense was backed up, faced with a third-and-seven, Pickett stood in the pocket and found Addison down the sideline for a 29-yard gain.

Just a few plays later, on third-down again, Pickett rolled out to his right and dropped a pass over Addison’s shoulder, who hauled it in for a touchdown in the corner of the endzone.

With the touchdown completion, Pickett completed his 868th career pass, usurping former quarterback Alex Van Pelt as the program’s all-time leader in pass completions, who held the record with 867 since 1982.

The Panther defense picked up a quick stop on the ensuing possession, giving Pickett the opportunity to take the lead — and he did just that. Pickett took the Panthers 76 yards in just over two minutes. 

The Clemson defense had the Panthers backed up, forcing a fourth-down on the drive but Narduzzi opted to leave the offense on the field and go for the first-down. Pickett rolled out to his right and it seemed senior receiver Taysir Mack got lost in the shuffle and broke free for a wide open 39-yard touchdown grab to put the Panthers in the lead.

Pitt took a 14-7 lead into the break, with Pickett slinging the ball for 218 yards and two touchdowns against the ACC’s No. 1 defense. The Panther offense outpaced the Tigers 267 to 189 in the half. Junior safety Erick Hallett II had an attention grabbing first half with five total tackles and a pass break-up.

Clemson started the second half with the ball, but it wouldn’t be the Tigers who scored on the drive. Uiagalelei dropped back, stepped to his right and shoveled the ball forward directly into Pitt junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis’ hands. Dennis proceeded to stiff arm the quarterback and run it 50-yards for a Panther touchdown, putting Pitt up 21-7. Narduzzi said he felt the momentum swing in his team’s favor once Dennis ran the interception back for a score.

I would say when SirVocea intercepted that shovel pass for a touchdown, there was a little momentum there, a big-time play,” Narduzzi said. “Put their quarterback on the bench. That was a turning point, I think.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney decided he had seen enough of Uigalelei after the interception and sent out sophomore quarterback Taisun Phommachanh for the next drive. But even with the change at quarterback, the Tigers couldn’t figure out the Panther defense, only scoring 10 points in the second half.

Sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda had 56-yards on the ground and another 20 through the air and looked to be getting in a rhythm. But after taking a shot to the helmet, Abanikanda went to the locker room. In came first-year running back Rodney Hammond.

Narduzzi, in need of a couple big runs to chew the clock, got them from Hammond. The first-year racked up 66-yards on just 11 carries to eat up a good chunk of the clock. Hammond said when he came into the game the logo on the other team’s helmet didn’t scare him — because he’s a Pitt Panther.

“We’re Pitt, we aren’t scared of nobody — we’re dogs,” Hammond said.

Swinney’s move to Phommachanh didn’t pay off and he went back to Uiagalelei midway through the fourth quarter. Penalties plagued the Panthers in the second half — especially on the Tigers’ touchdown drive. A few holding and pass interference calls aided the Tigers in making their way deep into Panther territory. Uiagalelei finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown rush. Pitt had nine penalties totaling 87 yards in the game.

But Clemson and Uiagalelei ran out of time. Pickett picked up two third-downs on the drive — both on the ground. Pickett stood up and emphatically pumped his fist, knowing this one was all over. Pickett said when he picked up that second first-down, he knew it was over.

“I knew the situation in the game where if we got two more first downs it was kind of over,” Pickett said. “I told [offensive coordinator Mark Whipple] keep the ball in my hands, I want to do it myself.”

The Panther sideline looked to the Panther Pitt and waved their arms in the air. The student section followed suit and rained down “let’s go Pitt” chants as the clock hit double zeros.

Pickett finished with 302-yards in the air and two touchdowns on top of his 15 yards on the ground.

The Panthers now shift their attention to the Miami Hurricanes. That game will kickoff at noon and air on ACC Network. According to Narduzzi, while the win was a satisfying one, it won’t interfere with Pitt’s ability to prepare for next week.

“They know how important the next one is,” Narduzzi said. “Every game gets a little bit bigger. I think Kenny said after the game in the locker room just about, ‘Hey, we’re moving on to the next one.’ Twenty-four hours this thing will be flushed down the toilet, we’ll move on to the next one.”

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