Defense, quarterbacks shine in Pitt football Spring Game


Hannah Wilson | Assistant Visual Editor

Senior Dayon Hayes rushes the quarterback during Pitt Football’s spring game at Acrisure Stadium.

By Brian Sherry, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt football hosted its annual Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday at Acrisure Stadium. The game offered fans a chance to get a look at the revamped Panther roster, following several key losses this offseason.

The exhibition pitted the offense against the defense in a scrimmage-style matchup. The defense ultimately prevailed, outlasting the offense 33-32 in a nailbiter. 

A small yet vocal crowd of Panther fans packed in the lower bowl of Acrisure Stadium to get a sneak peek of next season’s roster. The game also featured appearances from several former Panther legends, including Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald and Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin. 

This year’s spring game was drastically different compared to previous editions. Instead of utilizing a pregame draft like last year, the program opted to have the offense and defense compete in an exhibition matchup. The offense was called the Gold team, while the defense was the Blue team. 

The scoring system also differed from last year. The offense could score points for touchdowns, first downs, point-after kicks, two-point conversions and field goals. Meanwhile, the defense could score points based on turnovers, turnover touchdowns, three and outs, tackles for a loss, sacks and safeties. 

The biggest storyline coming into this scrimmage was the quarterback battle, as the Panthers have several players competing for the starting job. Due to the different setup, the Panthers rotated quarterbacks in and out, allowing seven quarterbacks to get time throughout the game. 

Redshirt senior quarterback Phil Jurkovec took the field first. Jurkovec had a rough first drive, as he fumbled and was sacked in back-to-back plays. The defense’s aggressive play earned them a 3-1 lead after the first drive. 

Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. — who previously worked with Jurkovec at Boston College — said that the spring game is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to choosing the starting quarterback. 

“First off, you gotta look at the whole spring,” Cignetti said. “[Jurkovec] had 15 consistent days out there. Wow, I thought he had a great spring. I saw him grow as a person. I saw him get better as a player.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Christian Veilleux took the field next for the Gold team. With the starting job on the line, Veilleux turned heads on his first drive. After gaining a quick first down, Veilleux took a shot down field and connected with redshirt junior Jake McConnachie for a long gain. 

Veilleux — a Penn State transfer — was determined to capitalize off his first drive with Pitt. The former Nittany Lion connected with junior running back Derrick Davis Jr. who battled through defenders for the touchdown. Davis’ efforts allowed the offense to regain the 8-3 lead. 

Cignetti complimented Veilleux for the drive, saying he executed well during the series.

“Wow, what a great drive,” Cignetti said. “Was that not pretty? We knew it was the second offense versus the first defense, so we wanted to get the ball out of our hands fast. Christian did a great job making quick, decisive decisions. He threw the ball with accuracy and really made some nice plays that drive.”

Jurkovec’s early struggles continued in his next drive. The redshirt senior just couldn’t connect with his receivers, leading to a three and out. For their efforts, the defense earned another point, cutting the Gold team’s lead to four. 

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nate Yarnell also had a chance to showcase his skills. But Yarnell also struggled, throwing for negative 2 yards. 

Jurkovec finally found his stride on the next series. The redshirt senior drove down the field, connecting with his receivers and leading the offense to the red zone. Redshirt senior running back Daniel Carter finished the drive, cutting past defenders for the short touchdown. Jurkovec’s passing ability and Carter’s short touchdown run helped increase the Gold team’s lead to 16-7 with just over three minutes in the first half. 

While the focus of the game was on the quarterbacks, other Panthers looked for opportunities to shine. Following the Carter touchdown, junior running back Rodney Hammond Jr. fielded a kickoff around the ten yard line. With defenders rushing down the field to make a tackle, Hammond took off, gliding past defenders to earn a 91 yard kick return touchdown. Hammond’s kick return strengthened the Gold team lead, which was now 23-7.

Veilleux returned to the field on the following drive, but couldn’t replicate his first drive success. The offense went stagnant during the drive, going three and out and allowing the defense to earn an additional point. The Blue team’s three and out cut the Gold team’s lead to 15 with just over a minute remaining in the half. 

The defense earned a sack on the following drive, cutting the Gold lead to 13. The Gold team then opted to take a kneel to end the half, as they headed to the locker room holding a 24-11 lead. 

Coming out of halftime, first-year quarterback Ty Dieffenbach entered the game. But the defense did not go easy on the first-year quarterback, as they sacked Dieffenbach and forced a three and out. 

The third quarter featured little action, as both teams struggled to make any big plays. At the end of the third quarter, the Gold team continued to hold onto their dominant 24-18 lead. 

Senior quarterback Eli Kosanovich entered the game to start the fourth quarter. Kosanovich could not get anything to work, as the defense ultimately earned the three and out. 

Then the defense finally struck. With just over eight minutes remaining in the game, Dieffenbach made a bad throw, allowing junior defensive back Phillip O’Brien to pick off the pass. O’Brien found himself with nothing but grass in front of him, as he cruised into the endzone to give the Blue team a 31-24 lead. O’Brien said former Pitt defensive back Jordan Whitehead gave him advice right before the play, which led to the interception. 

“I’m on the sideline, about to go on defense, and Jordan Whitehead was like ‘just read it, stay patient,’” Whitehead said. “So I go out there and I got to stay patient. I saw the tight end on a drag route and I just got in front of it.”

And O’Brien’s interception impressed the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates said turnovers are something that the team focuses on every day in practice. 

“We work turnovers pretty much every day,” Bates said. “There’s a certain drill we do, we rotate them. You win football games by getting turnovers. So, obviously, I stress it.”

But the offense wasn’t giving up yet. With just two and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Frantl stepped up, battling through defenders to score a short rushing touchdown. Frantl’s touchdown cut the Blue team’s lead to just one. 

With the game on the line, the offense sent out first-year quarterback David Lynch to attempt to complete the comeback. But the first-year could not step up, as the clock winded down to zero and the defense secured the 33-32 victory.