Column | Win at Syracuse paves way for ACC Championship preparation

Pitt+junior+linebacker+SirVocea+Dennis+%287%29+and+redshirt+senior+linebacker+John+Petrishen+%280%29+tackle+Syracuse+quarterback+Garrett+Shrader+%2816%29+during+Saturday%E2%80%99s+game+against+Syracuse+at+Carrier+Dome+in+Syracuse%2C+New+York.+%0A

AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

Pitt junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis (7) and redshirt senior linebacker John Petrishen (0) tackle Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader (16) during Saturday’s game against Syracuse at Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

With the ACC Championship Game rapidly approaching, the Panthers remained focused and earned a comfortable win against a conference foe. They beat Syracuse 31-14 in their regular season finale over the weekend and reached 10 regular season wins for the first time since 1981.

No. 20 Pitt was focused and the defense was stout against particularly tough competition on the historic night. After passing the final hurdle of the regular season, the Panthers are primed for the ACC Championship game on Saturday. 

Tucker shut down

Syracuse’s first-year running back Sean Tucker is a special talent. Throughout the entirety of this season, Tucker led the nation in a variety of rushing statistics such as yards per game and games with more than 100 rushing yards. In week 11 against NC State, he broke the school record for most rushing yards in a single season — one of just many records to his name in his young career.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox three times a week.

Pitt’s junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis said postgame that the defense looked forward to the challenge of facing Tucker.

You get excited for those types of games,” Dennis said. “And that’s what our guys did. They got excited to defeat the run. We just got after it.”

Tucker rushed for more than 100 yards in nine games this season and entered Saturday’s contest averaging 133.4 yards per game on the ground. The Panthers held him to just 29 yards on the ground on 13 carries — an average of about 2.2 yards per carry.

Pitt shutting down the ACC’s leading rusher set the tone for the evening as it stifled the Syracuse rushing attack. As a team, the Orange carried the ball 30 times for a total of just 25 yards. Slowing down the rushing attack forced them to put the ball in the air, resulting in two momentum-swinging turnovers.

The Panthers showed why they rank in the top five in the nation in rushing defense — with this performance against the run being their best to date.

Remaining focused

After defeating Virginia 48-38 on Nov. 20, much of the discourse surrounding Pitt football over the past week has been about its matchup in the upcoming ACC Championship Game.

With that said, the Panthers had to stay focused on their next opponent instead of looking ahead to the title game, and they did just that.

Pitt redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) looks to pass during Saturday’s game against Syracuse at Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.
(AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t allow himself to think about the ensuing title game until the Panthers took care of business against the Orange.

“We’ve been saying every week is a championship. But now we’re finally in the big one,” Pickett said. 

Despite a sluggish first quarter — they gained just 21 yards and trailed 7-0 by its conclusion — the Panthers never looked like they were in danger. Pitt stormed back and scored 28 unanswered points, taking full control of the contest.

In the process, sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison added two touchdown receptions — putting his season total at 17, the most in the FBS. Pickett connected with his favorite target to break Dan Marino and Rod Rutherford’s long-standing Pitt record of 37 touchdowns in a single season.

Pickett also became the only quarterback in ACC history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and 40 passing touchdowns in just 12 games. 

Party like it’s 1981

With the win over Syracuse, Pitt earned its first 10-win regular season since 1981.

Pitt junior defensive tackle Tyler Bentley said achieving the feat was long overdue.

“It’s been 40 years, it’s about time,” Bentley said postgame.

Panther fans everywhere wondered for years if this type of season would ever unfold. The magical season fans have been waiting for finally came to fruition, but the Panthers can’t afford to be complacent.

Pitt isn’t simply playing for hardware. This group has the ability to make history and lay a sound foundation for the future. If the Panthers emerge victorious on Saturday with their first ACC Championship in hand, it could propel the program to heights that have yet to be seen in the 21st century.

The Panthers will take on the No. 21 Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Bank of America Stadium for the ACC Championship Saturday at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.