Pitt defense locks down Hartman, wins first ever ACC Football Championship


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) holds up the ACC Championship trophy as the Pitt Panthers are showered in confetti.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Pitt football fell to the Clemson Tigers in the 2018 ACC Championship game, head coach Pat Narduzzi’s daughter left a simple message inside Bank of America Stadium — “WE WILL BE BACK.”

Sure enough, after ripping off 10 wins for the first time since 1981 and winning their second-ever Coastal Division Championship, Narduzzi and the Panthers were back in Charlotte on Saturday evening.

In front of a packed crowd, the Panthers wrapped up their ACC schedule on Saturday night with a 45-21 victory over the Demon Deacons at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. In what was expected to be a high scoring affair, redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 20 passes on 32 attempts and threw for 253 yards, scoring three total touchdowns.

After a win, Pickett typically allots the team a 24-hour window to enjoy the victory. But he thinks after the championship that he and his teammates deserve a little longer of a window.

“I think we’ll get a few more hours with this one,” Pickett said. “It’s a special game to walk off of the field a champion and accomplish everything you’ve worked for — we’re definitely going to enjoy it.”

Narduzzi said avenging the team’s 2018 loss was a vindicating moment for him and the rest of his program.

“I remember being here four years ago and shaking my head,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve got 120 football players in that locker room that did it all together. The kids made a lot of plays today and it’s a tribute to the hard work they put in.”

Pickett wasted no time getting the Panthers on the board. On the game’s fifth play, Pickett dropped back to pass. With nobody open, the fifth year stepped up with room to run — enough room to take the rush all the way to the end zone. Pickett sidestepped a defender, took his angle and ran 58 yards for a quick Panther score.

After sophomore place kicker Sam Scarton knocked through the extra point, Pitt jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after eating up just more than a minute on the play clock.

But redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman and the potent Wake Forest offense wasted no time answering right back. On six plays and in just less than three minutes, Hartman completed five passes for 34 yards and capped it off with a touchdown of his own. Rolling right, Hartman found his favorite target, redshirt sophomore A.T. Perry, in the corner of the endzone for a score.

Pickett was seemingly a man on a mission Saturday night and on the ensuing drive, he answered once again. Pickett led the Panthers for 75 yards on four plays, which he capped off with a 22-yard touchdown pass to first year Rodney Hammond Jr.

The Demon Deacons returned the favor in the offensive tug of war, going 75 yards on a 12-play scoring drive. Hartman saw Pickett’s rushing touchdown early and decided he wanted to get in on the action. Hartman finished off the drive with an 11-yard rushing touchdown of his own to promptly tie the game back up at 14.

After the Panthers moved the ball into Wake Forest territory on the ensuing drive, the offense eventually stalled at the 31-yard line. Narduzzi opted to attempt a 49-yard field goal looking into the Wake Forest student section. Scarton pushed the kick wide left.

Hartman made the Panthers pay for their first offensive miscue.

On just four plays, the Demon Deacons went 69 yards for a touchdown. Hartman continued his dominance running the run-pass-option and capped off the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to redshirt first-year receiver Taylor Morin. Wake Forest jumped out to its first lead of the game, going up 21-14.

Narduzzi quickly realized that field goals were not the answer to Wake Forest’s defense. After moving the ball up to the Wake Forest 26-yard line, the offense faced a fourth-and-short scenario. Narduzzi left the offense on the field to go for the first down, but Wake Forest read the play action pass to Addison and the Panthers failed to pick up the first down.

Narduzzi’s defense picked him up, forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and making the Demon Deacons punt for the first time in the game. Addison showcased his elusiveness and explosive speed, returning the punt 41 yards deep into Wake Forest territory — setting the Panthers up right where they left off.

Offensive play caller Mark Whipple started to dig into his bag of tricks on this drive, allowing junior receiver Jared Wayne to throw a pass on the drive. Wayne completed the pass to redshirt senior tight end Lucas Krull for 20 yards, putting Pitt inside of the Wake Forest 10-yard line. Just a few plays later, Wayne went back to doing what he’s used to doing — catching passes.

Pickett found Wayne on a slant route in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown to tie the game back up at 21.

The defenses traded stops for the latter half of the second quarter, each seeming to figure out the other’s offenses to an extent. Junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis picked up two third-down sacks on separate drives in the second quarter.

Pitt finished off the half with a last minute field goal to give Pitt a 24-21 lead heading into the half. Both quarterbacks registered three total touchdowns in the half. Hartman and Pickett threw for 165 and 166 yards in the first half, respectively.

The defenses picked up right where they left off in the second half, trading defensive stops. Both defenses made adjustments after being dominated early on. After conceding 21 points on three straight drives to open the game, the Pitt defense either forced a turnover or a punt on 12 consecutive drives.

Wake Forest’s defense also forced three punts on consecutive drives to open the second half.

Hartman’s efficient use of the RPO came to a screeching halt, and all of a sudden it was the Pitt defense stealing the show. After Hartman and the Wake Forest offense logged 186 yards in the first quarter alone, the Pitt defense held the Demon Deacons to 109 yards in the rest of the game combined.

Narduzzi said the defense made some adjustments and that’s what led to the success after the first quarter.

“Just little tweaks and adjustments, we didn’t play any different defense than we did on the first three drives,” Narduzzi said. “That’s kind of how we’ve rolled all year. We make our adjustments and get comfortable in the game, see what they’re doing, then we get a beat on exactly what they’re doing.”

Erick Hallett Jr., the junior safety who became the championship’s MVP, said the defense wanted to prove that it could make big stops when it mattered.

“Everybody says our defense is just okay,” Hallett said. “I think we really took that as a challenge to step up to the plate against an incredible offense — that’s an incredible offense we just played — and just answer the challenge.”

Senior center Owen Drexel wasn’t doing the Panther offense any favors with his off-target snaps during the first half, putting Pitt in a hole early in drives on multiple occasions. Narduzzi decided to put junior lineman Blake Zubovic in at center early on in the third quarter.

But eventually, the Panther offense woke up. After Hallett intercepted Hartman late in the third quarter, sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda decided a three-point lead wasn’t enough.

Abanikanda finished off a four-play, 45-yard drive, rushing for a 12-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 10. At the end of three quarters, the Pitt defense had completely stymied the Demon Deacon offense, shutting it out for two straight quarters.

Hartman’s struggles continued into the fourth quarter. He lofted a pass to the middle of the field and junior defensive back A.J. Woods intercepted the ball and returned it 73 yards all the way to the Wake Forest 3-yard line. Woods’ 73-yard return was the longest return after an interception in ACC Championship game history.

Pitt capitalized on the defense’s third interception of the game and pushed the lead to 17. Abanikanda rushed for a 1-yard touchdown, delivering what seemed like a fatal blow to the Demon Deacons.

Hallett decided to add another touchdown for good measure. The safety jumped his route and intercepted Hartman on the first play of the drive and returned it for a touchdown. Pitt scored 14 points in just eight seconds to jump out to a 45-21 lead.

Despite more than 11 minutes remaining on the clock, Wake Forest fans began to leave the stadium in droves as Pitt owned its 24-point lead, the game all but over.

Pitt claimed its first ACC Championship since joining the conference in 2013 with the win. The Panthers will now wait and see what bowl they will play in during ESPN’s selection show, airing Sunday at noon.

Hallett said he’s looking forward to getting the opportunity to play in an additional game later this month.

“It’s another opportunity to rep the script,” Hallett said. “That’s what we love to do.”

Pickett, who some believed may have played his last game on Saturday night, said he still has one more game in the tank.

“I plan on playing,” Pickett said.