PITTSBURGH (AP) — The silence in the Pittsburgh locker room was deafening. The anger, unmistakable.
The team intent on shedding its “Same Old Pitt” label had instead appeared to reinforce it following a stunning and staggering 44-41 home loss to Western Michigan on Sept. 18.
The Broncos lit up the Panthers for 517 yards and controlled the clock for 40 minutes, dimming a dazzling afternoon from quarterback Kenny Pickett and his six touchdown passes.
Coach Pat Narduzzi stressed accountability and calmness in the aftermath, pointing out all of his team’s preseason goals — an ACC Coastal Division title and a spot in the conference championship game — remained very much on the table.
Behind closed doors, Pickett took control. He helped organize a players-only meeting the following day and laid out the stakes.
“You can’t waste a day, you can’t waste a game,” Pickett recalled last week. “You can’t go out there and not give your best effort and not try to put out your best performance. I think that’s kind of the motto we took from that meeting.”
A motto the 17th-ranked Panthers have taken to the field. A month after that cathartic get-together, Pitt is rolling. The Panthers (6-1, 3-0 ACC) have won four straight, all of them by double digits, including an emphatic 27-17 victory over reeling Clemson on Saturday that sent Pitt to its highest ranking during the season since 2009.
Pickett was in elementary school back then. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate with 23 touchdowns against one interception. Yet the masterful leap forward he’s made with his right arm hasn’t diminished an ounce of the toughness that won over Narduzzi when Pickett was a freshman in 2017.
Twice in the fourth quarter on Saturday the Panthers faced third-and-long. And twice Pickett tucked the ball and bolted for the first-down marker. His head-first dive toward the sticks to convert a third-and-7 was reminiscent of his sprint for the end-zone pylon during his first collegiate start, an upset of then-No. 2 Miami in the 2017 season finale. Pickett did it again three plays later, bullying his way for 7 yards on third-and-6 on a designed run.
A few minutes later Pickett was taking a knee as the clock ran out after the kind of watershed performance the Panthers have hinted at but rarely delivered for the better part of four decades.
The 23-year-old Pickett wasn’t joking when he said in the aftermath he was going to go enjoy the win with an adult beverage. Yet, perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Panthers is they didn’t merely rely on Pickett’s now weekly brilliance.
The defense that was shredded by Western Michigan’s run/pass option attack looked far more equipped to handle it against the Tigers. Clemson was held to 315 yards and the Panthers picked off D.J. Uaigalelei twice, once in the red zone to thwart a scoring opportunity and another linebacker SirVocea Dennis turned into a 50-yard touchdown that gave Pitt a 21-7 lead it didn’t really flirt with squandering.
Dennis joked afterward he was focused on simply not falling as he raced toward the end zone. He didn’t, a sprint symbolic of a team that may finally have found its footing.
A running game that has been searching for momentum for the better part of three years may finally have some. Pitt’s 464 total yards against the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense included 162 yards on the ground, with 41 of them coming on that final drive that drained the final 7:56 on the clock.
“When we want to run the ball, we can run the ball,” Narduzzi said.
And do it with the kind of physicality that was long part of the program’s standard. Freshman Rodney Hammond Jr. came on in the second half and thudded his way to 66 yards on 11 carries, his legs furiously churning through a defense that didn’t look too interested in tackling him.
“We’re Pitt, we’re not scared of anybody,” Hammond said.
The Panthers don’t appear to be scared of success either. Pitt entered Saturday just 3-4 as a ranked team under Narduzzi, part of “one step forward, one step back” cha-cha with mediocrity the Panthers have struggled to escape from since joining the ACC in 2013.
Decisively taking down Clemson marked a significant mile marker in a journey Pitt hopes will take it to Charlotte for the conference title game in December. The Panthers — who won 10 games in a season just once since 1981 — will likely be favored in each of their final five contests starting next Saturday at home against Miami (3-4, 1-2).
All the pieces are in place for Pitt to finally put it together. Still, Pickett is hardly taking anything for granted.
“(Beating Clemson) won’t mean anything,” he said, “if we don’t handle business these next couple weeks.”
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