Pitt welcomes Virginia to town with Coastal title on the line

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TPN File Photo

Pitt cornerback Jason Pinnock (15) tries to stop Virginia wide receiver Hasise Dubois (8) reaching for the end zone for a touchdown during Pitt’s game against the Virginia Cavaliers in September 2019.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

When Pitt lost to Miami a few weeks ago, it suffered its second upset loss on the coattails of a big game, sparking some concern from Pitt fans.

But senior linebacker John Petrishen assured the Panther faithful that the next time he and his teammates were in that position, they would not falter.

“It’s really an emotional rollercoaster,” Petrishen said after Miami upset the Panthers. “Hopefully it won’t allow us to get too far ahead of ourselves next time we have a big win — because we will have another big win this season.”

After an overtime victory over the UNC Tar Heels, the Panthers (8-2, 5-1 ACC) are back in a similar position — but this time around, the stakes are a little higher. When the Virginia Cavaliers (6-4, 4-2 ACC) come to Heinz Field on Saturday, the Coastal Division title is up for grabs. With a win, Pitt will clinch the Coastal and book a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC Championship Game. A loss will put Pitt in a hole that may be tough to climb out of.

There’s not much room for error and head coach Pat Narduzzi knows it, especially with a very talented team that is still contending for the division.

“Great challenge ahead,” Narduzzi said. “Big football game. Playing for big stuff in November and that’s why you coach. That’s why you play the game.”

Here are the storylines to watch in Pitt’s “great challenge” with the Cavaliers.

Pitt can clinch the Coastal Division with a win

The Panthers haven’t sat atop the Coastal since redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s sophomore season in 2018. But Pickett and the Panthers have a chance to end the drought this Saturday.

With a win, the Panthers officially clinch the Coastal Division. Although it is without question a game with huge implications, Narduzzi isn’t changing the way he prepares his team.

“We’ll be prepared,” Narduzzi said. “Our kids will be prepared. I think they’re excited. It’s another football game, and that’s the only way I know how to look at it.”

There are some players on the current roster that played in the 2018 ACC Championship game with Clemson, namely Pickett. Narduzzi feels that having players on his team that have experience in a championship game is an advantage, but they have to make it there first.

“I think it helps,” Narduzzi said. “I think it will help if you get to that game, if you are lucky to get through that game. Going into it, I don’t know if it really helps, but I think it will help with the experience going into that game more than anything.”

If Pitt does lose, the Cavaliers will vault the Panthers for first place in the Coastal Division. Pitt would rely on a Virginia loss the following week if it wants to win the division. But it sounds like Narduzzi will be trying to keep his team focused on this week before jumping ahead to an ACC Championship.

Senior day festivities

This week’s game is the Panthers’ Senior Day and with so many upperclassmen on the team, Pitt fans will get to bid farewell to some of the longest tenured players in the school’s history.

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Notable players who will be making their way to midfield for the festivities include seniors linebacker Petrishen, seventh-year Tre Tipton, defensive lineman Keyshon Camp and quarterback Kenny Pickett. Narduzzi said it’s going to be tough to see such a large group leave the program.

“I don’t want to lose any of them,” Narduzzi said. “They provided a ton of leadership for this football team, made a lot of plays. We’re going to miss each and every one of them when they walk out in Heinz Field for the last time on Saturday at 3:30. It will be an emotional weekend for them.”

While Senior Day is something that many look forward to during their career, it isn’t Pickett’s main focus this week.

“It’s been a wild, wild ride,” Pickett said. “Grateful for the opportunity to go out there and finish this Coastal Championship and we have to go out there and go take it and go win. That’s really the focus right now, it’s kind of hard to think about Senior Day. I think it’s something I’ll be thinking about after more than before. But definitely being able to run out to my parents and give them a hug and take a moment to enjoy before the game starts will be special.”

Will Armstrong play?

The Cavaliers boast the nation’s No. 2 passing offense in the entire country — the only ACC team outpacing Pickett and the Panthers, who sit at No. 5, in this area. This high production is contingent on the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback junior Brennan Armstrong being on the field.

But Armstrong suffered a rib injury against the BYU Cougars a couple of weeks ago and did not play against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last week. Naruzzi said he thinks that the Cavaliers rested their starting quarterback in a non-conference game to save him for the Panthers.

“Brennan Armstrong — expect him to play,” Narduzzi said. “I think they saved him up. He will be primed and ready for an ACC clash, so we do expect to get their best player, which they didn’t have Saturday. Who cares about the Notre Dame game? I think that was kind of the attitude they had going into it.”

When Armstrong is on the field, the Cavalier offense is averaging 8.5 yards per attempt this season compared to just 5.9 yards per attempt when his backup, first year Jay Woolfolk, is on the field.

Armstrong has a powerful arm and can stand in the pocket under pressure. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado said his arm is certainly impressive and it’s something the Panthers will have to be ready for.

“We face a lot of mobile quarterbacks in the ACC,” Baldonado said. “The special thing about [Armstrong] is that he throws a lot … but he can make you miss. He’s a pretty solid runner as well … I wouldn’t say there’s a lot different from the other quarterbacks but I’d say he’s a great player capable of doing what he does.”

Prediction | Pitt clinches the Coastal on Senior day, wins 38-20

Pickett and the rest of the seniors have one last opportunity to put on a show for the Panther Pitt — expect them to do just that. 

Even if Armstrong does play, the Cavalier offensive line is in for a long day. Virginia has allowed 30 sacks this year — the third worst among power-five teams. The Panthers rank No. 1 in the ACC in sacks with 36, so don’t expect Armstrong to have too much time to stand in the pocket and throw.

On the other hand, even with a banged up offensive line, Pickett is going to have a ton of time to make his progressions and reads. Virginia ranks dead last in the ACC in sacks with just 12 — a third of the Panthers’ production this year. With time to throw, Pickett has excelled.

The goal all year has been to win a championship and a win this Saturday would put this goal within arm’s reach. This is what Pickett and the seniors came back for — don’t anticipate them letting this one slip away.

Pitt’s matchup with the Cavaliers will kick off at Heinz Field at 3:30 p.m. and air on ESPN2.

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