For their final home game, Pitt’s departing seniors left their mark at Heinz Field on Saturday in a 47-14 rout of Virginia Tech.
Kenny Pickett completed 35 of 52 passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown late in the third quarter. D.J. Turner caught 15 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown, a 64-yarder.
Patrick Jones recovered a fumble. Jason Pinnock intercepted Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker on the second play of the third quarter. Damar Hamlin stuffed Hooker on 4th-and-goal two minutes later.
Kicker Alex Kessman was 4-for-4 on field goals, including making two from more than 50 yards.
“Senior Day, that’s how you let your seniors go out,” coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “Those 10 that walked and had senior day today, I just couldn’t be more proud of those guys and what they did today.”
Pitt’s Senior Day at Heinz Field looked much different. While seniors would normally be joined on the field by their families before the game, the pandemic made that impossible. Instead, as the seniors took to the field, messages from their families played on the Heinz Field Jumbotron. The lack of normalcy had no effect on the seniors as they put on a show.
Pitt’s much-heralded defensive line will lose starting defensive ends Jones and Rashad Weaver after this season. Weaver said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge had some words of wisdom for the two prior to their final game at Heinz Field.
“He just told us you gotta end on the note you guys deserve,” Weaver said after the game.
Pittsburgh native Hamlin, who played in WPIAL championships at Heinz Field as a star at Central Catholic, said the game meant “everything” to him.
“Just being from Pittsburgh, just playing at Heinz Field since I was a sophomore in high school, it just meant everything just to know it was my last collegiate game here,” Hamlin said.
The Panthers’ performance was perhaps more impressive given they were without 16 players due to the COVID-19 protocols that forced the cancellation of last week’s game with Georgia Tech.
Pitt was without three-fifths of its starting offensive line as tackles Carter Warren and Gabe Houy and guard Jake Kradel missed the game. Leading tackler SirVocea Dennis and starting safety Brandon Hill also missed, as did starting wideout Jared Wayne.
Two true freshmen, starting slot receiver Jordan Addison and running back Israel Abanikanda, also did not play, though they were present on the sideline during the game.
“I think we traveled 69 (in uniform today), which is below what we would normally take to a football game,” Narduzzi said. “Obviously we got hit with COVID coming back from Tallahassee somehow, some way.”
The offensive line was nearly down four starters as it was revealed after the game starting center Jimmy Morrissey did not practice during the week. That would’ve put Pitt in quite a pickle, since both of their backup centers, Kradel and Owen Drexel, were out as well. Matt Goncalves, who made his first start at left tackle on Saturday, practiced at center for part of the week.
“He’s never snapped the ball in a game or really in a practice really,” Narduzzi said of Goncalves.
Narduzzi gave credit to his senior quarterback for giving the team confidence that they could go out and win regardless of who was missing as he recounted a speech Pickett gave during Tuesday’s practice.
“Kenny Pickett had the focus and talked to the team and said, ‘Listen, I don’t care who’s on the field; I’ll play with any of my brothers here,’ “ Narduzzi said. “And to me that was key; when he said that I was like, 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 said it came down to trust.
“I had faith in every single guy that was out there,” Pickett said. “I think the biggest thing in football is trust and you gotta trust the ten guys out there. I think we did that tonight.”
“It might sound cliché but it’s next man up mentality,” Hamlin said of Pitt’s short-handed performance.
Pitt stalled in the red zone early and was forced to settle for field goals. The Panthers led 9-0 midway through the second quarter and were dominating the stat sheet until Hooker connected with wide receiver Tre Turner for a 55-yard touchdown, pulling the Hokies within two.
The touchdown may have lit a fire under Pitt’s offense. The Panthers scored on five of their next six drives, including four touchdowns and completely dominated the second half. Pitt’s defense shut out the Hokies for the final 30 minutes of the game.
Getting such a big win on Senior Day meant a lot to the departing players.
“To finish the game and win by how much we did win by really made it more enjoyable,” Weaver said. “That’s going to be a memory, you know. To leave your senior night as a win, cause every year there’s going to be guys that have a senior night and it’s not a win, all around the country. Just for us to have that in our memory.
“I know I’m gonna have that jersey and I’m not gonna wash it and I’ll be able to remember that forever.”