Panthers overpower Orange, win 10th game for first time in 40 years

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AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) scrambles out of the pocket during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Syracuse in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

When Randy Juhl introduced Pat Narduzzi as the fifth head coach of the struggling Panther football team in as many years, Pitt’s then interim athletic director joked that restoring the middling program to its former glory isn’t as difficult as it seems.

“If Pitt can cure polio and invent CPR, then it sure as hell can win 10 football games,” Juhl said during Narduzzi’s introductory press conference in December 2014.

It took seven years for the Panthers to fulfill Juhl’s half-joking, half-gravely serious demand to reach double-digit wins in a single season. After defeating Syracuse (5-7 overall, 2-7 ACC) 31-17 on Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, No. 17 Pitt (10-2 overall, 7-1 ACC) secured its first 10-win season since 1981, ending a 40-year drought. After clearing their final regular season hurdle, the Panthers will turn their attention to the ACC Championship game, where they will face No. 21 Wake Forest on Dec. 4 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Panthers were in control for most of the contest, but their slow start allowed the Orange to jump out in front quickly.

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Syracuse’s first drive was set up by a second-down scamper from redshirt first-year receiver Courtney Jackson, who caught a screen pass and escaped an arm tackle from junior cornerback Marquis Williams, and moved up the sideline for a first down. They then continued to convert two of three third downs and one fourth down, setting up a 12-yard connection from sophomore quarterback Garrett Shrader to Jackson for the game’s first score. 

Syracuse possessed the ball for more than 12 minutes, while Pitt had it for less than three. The Panthers were shut out in the first quarter for the first time since week eight against Clemson, and trailed 7-0 after the first 15 minutes of play.

The Panthers finally broke through in the second quarter with a meticulous 11-play, 75-yard drive. They picked up four of their five total first downs to that point in the game on that march and capped it with a 15-yard screen pass from super-senior quarterback Kenny Pickett to first-year running back Rodney Hammond for a touchdown.

Pitt then got the ball back almost immediately and in good field position. Syracuse’s Devaughn Cooper fumbled and junior SirVocea Dennis recovered the loose ball at the Syracuse 45-yard line. Pickett linked with his favorite target, sophomore receiver Jordan Addison, on a post route five plays later for a 25-yard score to make it 14-7, Panthers with 5:06 left in the first half.

Syracuse wide receiver Courtney Jackson, right, crosses the goal line over Pittsburgh defensive back Judson Tallandier II for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Pitt added two more scores in the third quarter — one on a four-yard pass from Pickett to first-year Gavin Bartholomew and the other a five-yard screen to Addison — to extend its scoring run to 28-straight.

After the Orange’s 75-yard, game-opening touchdown drive, they mustered just 41 yards on 23 plays for a lowly 1.8 yards per attempt up until the midway point of the third quarter. The Pitt defense held redshirt first-year running back Sean Tucker, the ACC’s leading rusher, and company in check for a vast majority of the contest.

But with its second drive of the half, Syracuse began to reclaim momentum.

First, they struck quickly with a 2:36 drive that ended in a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, who beat redshirt safety Erick Hallett over the top. Then, on Pitt’s ensuing drive, first-year defensive back Darian Chestnut picked off a Pickett deep ball in the end zone. 

But the Orange did little with that momentum. They were stuffed repeatedly deep in their own territory after getting the ball back and nearly surrendered a safety. Pitt forced a three-and-out and, after a 28-yard punt return set the offense up with good field position, Pitt’s Hammond ran five times for 16 yards while 4:30 burned off the clock.

The Panthers all but put the game away with a 26-yard field goal from first-year place kicker Sam Scarton, which extended their lead to 31-14 with 6:24 left in the contest.

From there, Pitt coasted to a victory. The Orange picked up 50 yards on their final drive, but stalled out in Panther territory before ultimately turning the ball over on downs. Pitt brought in back-ups — redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti and redshirt sophomore running back Daniel Carter — to eat away the remaining 2:26 with runs up the middle and kneel downs.

With a spot in the ACC title game already secured after last week’s dramatic Senior Day victory vs. Virginia, the Panthers had little other than the symbolic 10-win mark to play for. Now that Pitt has granted Juhl’s years-old wish and cleared the double-digit victory hurdle, they will turn their attention to a date with No. 21 Wake Forest.

The Panthers and Demon Deacons will play for the conference crown on Dec. 4 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. and the game will air on ABC.