Pitt’s 47-14 victory against Virginia Tech wasn’t official until the clock showed triple zeros at 7:20 p.m. Saturday.
But Pat Narduzzi saw it coming four days earlier, and maybe that says something about how Pitt’s senior class hasn’t allowed this grim season to unravel.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett stood up in front of his teammates Tuesday, knowing several of them — the final count was 18 players and seven starters — would be missing as a result of covid-19 and injury issues.
Narduzzi said Pickett made an emotional speech, telling the rest of the team, “I don’t care who’s on the field. I’ll play with any of my brothers here.”
“And to me, that was the key,” the coach said. “When he said that, I (said) ‘Here we go. Let’s go.’
“That’s your senior leadership. That’s your senior captain. He didn’t care who was in front of him. He said we’re going to get this thing done.”
Pickett also spoke to the team Friday night, and the quarterback and center Jimmy Morrissey had tears in their eyes while speaking of what the last game at Heinz Field meant to them.
The next day, Pitt lined up without leading tackler SirVocea Dennis, No. 1 pass catcher Jordan Addison and 60% of its regular offensive line.
Given all those absences, what could you expect from a team that was 4-4 in the latter stages of a mostly bleak season?
Probably not the complete, no-excuses effort that never allowed Virginia Tech — a team that last year shut out the Panthers, 28-0 — to seriously threaten the lead. After beating Florida State two weeks ago, Pitt has put dominant victories back-to-back after a four-game losing streak and before its trip to Death Valley next Saturday to play No. 4 Clemson.
Among the missing were offensive tackles Carter Warren and Gabe Houy (Upper St. Clair) and guard Jake Kradel (Butler). Addison, who has been Pickett’s most reliable pass catcher this season, was on the field before the game, but he did not play.
Redshirt freshman Matt Goncalves, who played guard most of the season and center most of the week, started at left tackle. Sophomore Blake Zubovic (Belle Vernon) was at right guard, and junior Carson Van Lynn was at right tackle. None of those three had logged significant playing time over the previous three months.
Ignoring the ground game for much of the game, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple unleashed Pickett, who completed 35 of 52 passes for 404 yards — second-best of his career — and two touchdowns. He also scored on a 1-yard sneak in the third quarter, giving him seven for the season, tying Rick Trocano’s Pitt record for quarterbacks set in 1978.
So, Pitt (5-4, 4-4 ACC) turned to Pickett’s arm, wide receiver D.J. Turner’s hands and elusive feet and Alex Kessman’s historically strong leg to hand Virginia Tech (4-5, 4-4) its third loss in a row. Kessman hit field goals of 22, 30, 52 and 53 yards. For his career, he has hit 12 of 18 from beyond the 50, an NCAA-record percentage of 66.7.
Turner, filling Addison’s slot position, caught 15 passes for 184 yards and a 64-yard touchdown, falling a reception short of Harry Orszulak’s school record 16 against Penn State in 1968.
“The first quarter I knew I had a lot (seven), but I stopped counting,” Turner said. “Fifteen catches, that’s ridiculous.”
Turner, whose one-month-old son, Darryl Turner III, was in attendance, had one more catch Saturday than his total of the previous six games combined. He also gained some important yards after the catch.
“They would leave some plays on the field. A lot of arm tackling,” he said of Virginia Tech’s defense. “I knew I could break a lot of tackles if I tried.”
Even the running game came alive in the second half, with senior A.J. Davis rushing for 80 yards — a season-high for any Pitt back. Incredibly, seven hours before kickoff, he was in a dentist’s chair getting a root canal.
“That’s adversity,” Narduzzi said. “It’s the 2020 season. Crazy things happen.”
But the coach’s bottom line was simply this:
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