Pitt takes down Virginia 48-38 at Heinz Field, clinching Coastal Division

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AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) scrambles as Virginia cornerback Nick Grant (1) pursues during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

In a back-and-forth affair, behind record days from redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison, the high-powered No. 20 Panther offense led the way in capturing Pitt’s second ACC Coastal title, earning a trip to the ACC Championship Game with a 48-38 win over Virginia.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said the Panthers have unfinished business.

“The real championship is to come,“ Narduzzi said. “We want to win an ACC Championship.”

The Panthers welcomed the Virginia Cavaliers to Heinz Field in their final home game of the 2021 season. Pitt’s home finale, on senior day, was the last chance for Panther fans to watch seniors play at home. But the storyline coming into the game was that Pitt had an opportunity to clinch the ACC Coastal Division with a win — they did just that. Pickett said the feeling he had walking out of the tunnel at home for one final time was special to him.

“I couldn’t ask for a better ending at Heinz,” Pickett said.

Pitt took down the Cavaliers 48-38, behind Addison’s career best 14 catches, 202 yards and four touchdowns. Pickett became Pitt’s leader in single season passing yards in the win, surpassing Ron Rutherford who threw for 3,679 yards in the 2003 season.

Pitt fans erupted when the fifth-year quarterback’s name was announced one final time in front of the home crowd — but the question that loomed all week was who would get the nod at quarterback for the Cavaliers. Virginia’s standout junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong entered the day as a “game time decision” after missing last week’s 28-3 loss against Notre Dame.

After the week of speculation, the Cavaliers elected to send out Armstrong for the Coastal Division clash.

The Panthers initially forced a three-and-out on the opening drive before a targeting penalty on junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis revived the Cavalier drive, granting Virginia a fresh set of downs. Super-senior linebacker John Petrishen said postgame that the standard does not change despite losing a player of Dennis’ caliber.

“He’s the leader of our defense,” Petrishen said. “But, the standard doesn’t change, we knew Brandon George was going to step up big for us.”

The targeting penalty immediately disqualified Dennis from the rest of the contest, leaving the Panthers without their leading tackler on the defensive side of the ball. The Cavaliers capitalized on the penalty with a three-yard touchdown pass from Amrstrong to senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson, putting Virginia up 7-0.

Pitt and Virginia traded three-and outs, before Pickett conducted a methodical drive to put the  Panthers on the board. Pickett connected with Addison, deadlocking the game at seven a piece.

On the ensuing Cavalier drive, Calijah Kancey sacked Armstrong on third down to quickly get the Panthers defense off of the field.

The Panther offense made sure to capitalize on the opportunity to take the lead. Pitt marched into the red zone before stalling on fourth down, forcing head coach Pat Narduzzi to make a decision. Pitt opted to go for it on fourth down and Pickett responded,throwing his second consecutive touchdown to Addison, this time from 18 yards out, putting the Panthers up 14-7.

The Cavaliers stormed back in lightning quick fashion, with Armstrong leading a surgical drive to set up sophomore running back Mike Hollins. Hollins plunged the ball from two-yards out to even the score at 14.

But the Cavalier lead was short-lived. Sophomore running-back Izzy Abanikanda took the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to put the Panthers back out in front 21-14, energizing the home crowd.

After the Panthers forced a three-and-out, Pitt continued to dominate the special teams battle. Addison returned the Cavalier punt 39 yards to set up Pitt well into Virginia territory. The Panthers couldn’t find the endzone, but sophomore kicker Sam Scarton tacked on three points with a field goal, giving Pitt a two-possession lead, with the score sitting at 24-14.

But Virginia wouldn’t go into half quietly. Armstrong capped off a 75-yard drive, connecting with junior tight end Jelani Woods on a 7-yard touchdown pass — good for Armstrong’s second touchdown pass of the half, matching Pickett to end the half. Pitt carried a 24-21 lead into the half.

Pickett began the second half in the same way he ended the first — with an interception. The Cavaliers began their opening drive of the half at the Panthers 11-yard line, but Pitt held Virginia to a field goal which sophomore kicker Brendan Farrell converted, tying the game at 24.

With Armstrong backed up against his own endzone, the Panther defense sacked him twice, giving Pickett and the offense favorable field position on the following drive. The Panthers seemed to stall before opting to go for it on yet another fourth-down. But the gamble once again paid off — Pickett connected with Addison for the hat trick. Pitt jumped back out to a 31-24 lead.

The Cavaliers were unfazed, driving the ball down the field with ease. Thompson, who proved to be a swiss-army knife for Virginia, scampered in the end zone on the ground from eight yards out, tying the game at 31.

Junior running back Vincent Davis kickstarted the following Panther drive, rushing three times for 40 yards. Despite moving the ball inside of the Cavaliers’ 10-yard line, Pitt couldn’t capitalize, settling for a 23-yard chip shot field goal from Scarton. This put the Panthers back in the lead 34-31.

Pitt picked up another stop on defense to set the offense up with another opportunity to extend the lead.

But Panther fans collectively held their breath after Pickett went to the turf hard and had to exit the game on the drive. Junior quarterback Nick Patti replaced Pickett — throwing the junior into the fire.

Patti responded on fourth-and-one, drawing a pass interference call and extending the drive. Fans chanted Pickett’s name as he trotted back on the field for a decisive third down in the red zone. Virginia forced an incomplete pass, setting up another Scarton field goal attempt.

The kick went through the uprights, but Virginia jumped offsides and granted the Panthers a fresh set of downs. Pitt first-year running back Rodney Hammond later found paydirt from one yard out, extending the lead to 10. 

It took Virginia just two plays to respond, with Armstrong connecting on a 39-yard touchdown pass with senior wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry, trimming the score to 41-38. After a Pitt three-and-out, the Cavaliers threatened to take the lead. But a bad snap put the Virginia offense in a hole, allowing the Panthers to get off the field on a long third down. 

A third-and-five from the Panthers’ 38-yard line would be the play that defined the Panthers season to this point. If they got the first down, they could wind the clock, win the game and be ACC Coastal Division champions. 

Instead of settling for the first down, the Panthers went for the haymaker with Addison recording his school record, fourth touchdown in a game — booking the Panthers’ ticket to Charlotte. Addison said he doesn’t think he has ever had as big of a game as he had Saturday. 

“No, I don’t think I ever had a game like this,” Addison said. “I’m going to enjoy this one for 24 hours.”

Pickett said postgame that the Panthers aren’t done yet. 

“It’s special to be a champion, and call yourself a champion,” Pickett said. “I really want to do that one more time.”

Petrishen was on the same page as Pickett, reiterating that the Panthers want to finish the season strong.

“We want the big one even more,” Petrishen said. “This is just a box getting checked on the way to our big goal.”

Before Pitt can focus its energy on the ACC Championship game, it will have one final regular season game against the Syracuse Orange next week. The game time and network will be announced later this weekend.

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