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Column | For Pitt football, the next step is right now

Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt football hasn’t won more than eight games in a season since 2009, but this might be the season they end the double-digit win drought, argues senior staff writer Kyle Saxon.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

To an outside observer, Pitt football’s 41-34 win over Tennessee on Saturday may seem to be no more than an expected result. But for the Panthers, the win in Knoxville marks a colossal sign of progress.

The victory marked Pitt’s first road win against a non-conference, “Power Five” opponent since Sept. 27, 2003, when the Panthers defeated Texas A&M in College Station. While they also picked up significant non-conference road victories against two independent teams in Navy and Notre Dame during the 2008 season, the main theme persists –– the Panthers have struggled recently in significant non-conference road games.

The final score is far from the only reason for optimism. The specific course of the game revealed many reasons to believe that 2021 could be a signature year for head coach Pat Narduzzi and the program as a whole.

While the Panthers have seen an ACC Coastal championship and an abundance of NFL-caliber talent in recent years, they have not accumulated more than eight wins in a season since 2009. Breaking through that threshold could be all the Panthers need to truly take the next step. The Tennessee win puts them on the right path, but for Narduzzi and the Pitt program, the time to really take that next step is right now.

The Volunteers scored their first touchdown a little more than a minute into the game, and at the end of the first quarter, Pitt faced a 10-0 deficit. In front of a crowd of more than 80,000 opposing fans, the Panthers responded with a 27-point second quarter, and sustained a lead for the final 30:19 of play. Pitt showed on Saturday that there is no moment too big and no environment too intimidating for it to leave the stadium with a victory.

Pitt’s response to adversity can largely be explained by one of its roster’s most valuable characteristics –– experience. After a promising end to an inconsistent 2020 season, the Panthers returned the majority of their starters this year, including their unquestioned leader, redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Pickett consistently stepped up when Pitt needed him most, completing huge passes on several crucial third downs and even taking the game into his own hands to earn two fourth down conversions with his legs. He finished the game with 285 passing yards and three total touchdowns, while completing 66.7% of his passes.

Throughout Narduzzi’s six full seasons as Pitt’s head football coach, his most successful teams featured at least one dominant running back, and heavily leaned on moving the ball on the ground. For the first time in his tenure, the strength of his team is now its signal caller. Pickett provides savy and poise that gives Pitt an advantage over most teams in the country at the quarterback position, and his abilities were on full display last Saturday.

On the defensive side of the ball, Pitt faced some struggles. The Panthers pride themselves on their stout run defense and disruptive pass rush, and while Pitt got into the backfield consistently, the mobility of Tennessee’s quarterbacks posed a significant problem. While Pitt’s blitz packages have been remarkably effective throughout Narduzzi’s tenure, the Panthers conceded 103 rushing yards on just 14 attempts from quarterback scrambles alone.

While Pitt had trouble keeping Tennessee’s quarterbacks in the pocket and conceded an uncharacteristic number of points, its defense was still impactful and made monumental plays down the stretch.

Redshirt senior linebacker John Petrishen got to the Volunteers in the backfield on a potential game-tying 4th-and-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter. And on the next defensive drive, junior safety Brandon Hill made an interception to seal the victory.

Against Tennessee, the Panthers displayed resiliency and effectiveness on both sides of the ball. Therefore, the seemingly perennial question must follow –– could this finally be a breakthrough year for Pitt football?

Tennessee represented the biggest early test on Pitt’s schedule, and looking ahead, the Panthers will be favored to win the majority of their remaining games. Four of their future opponents are currently nationally ranked in the AP Poll, and three of those teams will travel to Heinz Field to face the Panthers.

The Panthers, much like any football team, still have some areas to address. Despite running the ball productively against UMass, Pitt averaged an abysmal 2.1 yards per carry against Tennessee, and is yet to find a proven lead fullback. But with three running backs that have all shown flashes of brilliance throughout their Pitt career, there is reason to believe that Pitt will figure things out in the running game as the season progresses.

After passing their first true test of the season with flying colors, the Panthers now face a largely winnable schedule with perhaps the most complete roster that Pitt has assembled under Narduzzi. The Panthers continuously recruited and developed All-ACC caliber talent in recent years, and in their final year with Pickett at the helm, there hasn’t been a better time for Pitt to capitalize.