PITTSBURGH — In the five seasons of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, the Panthers have become known for upsetting prominent opponents such as rival Penn State and eventual National Champion Clemson in 2016, as well as No. 2 Miami in the final game of 2017.
Despite those impressive wins, the Panthers have also been known for tight games against lesser opponents.
That fact is not lost on the coach himself.
Following Pitt’s 55-0 win over Austin Peay on Saturday afternoon, Narduzzi spoke of previous instances when his team didn’t play as well as the Panthers should have, including an overtime win against Youngstown State in 2017, a 3-point victory over Delaware last year, and barely squeaking by Eastern Michigan in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl.
“We talked all week about just coming out and making a statement,” Narduzzi said. “The big emphasis today was to come out and play up. We were going to show that we were a different football team, and really make a statement to the country about who we are and what kind of weapons we have on — really — all three phases of the game.”
Against the Governors, Pitt’s offense scored six touchdowns on its first six drives, the defense pitched a shutout for the first time since the opening week of 2014, and the special teams set up the final two touchdowns with blocked punts.
Freshmen Daniel Carter and Israel Abanikanda, as well as transfer D.J. Turner scored their first touchdowns as Panthers. Freshman wideout Jaylon Barden’s 68-yard reception late in the first half led to a 1-yard rushing touchdown for Todd Sibley on the next play. Sibley’s touchdown put the Panthers up 42-0 before halftime.
The rout was on, leading the two teams to agree to play two 10-minute quarters in the second half, a decision that was made at halftime between the two schools, the officiating crew, and the ACC Director of Officiating.
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett was removed from the game after the Panthers went up by six touchdowns, making way for freshmen Davis Beville and Joey Yellen to each get playing time. Pickett finished the day 14-of-20 passing for 277 yards, one touchdown through the air and one rushing touchdown.
Pitt’s defense started the game with a bang. On the Governors’ first drive, Pitt safety Paris Ford had a tackle for a loss on second down, setting up third-and-long. On the ensuing play, Ford picked off quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall and gifted his offense good field position. The Panthers put together a 10-play, 59-yard drive that culminated in a 2-yard rushing touchdown for freshman tailback Carter.
The Panthers remained in the driver’s seat for the rest of the game.
The performance came without seven Pitt players who missed the contest due to COVID-19 protocols. While the names of the players were not released, defensive end Rashad Weaver tweeted Saturday morning that he had conflicting test results during the week and would be sitting out the season opener.
Starting defensive tackle Keyshon Camp was also not present at the game. Wide receiver Taysir Mack and tight end Lucas Krull didn’t play due to injuries, though they were both present on the sidelines. Narduzzi said Mack and Krull were held out for precautionary reasons and should be available against Syracuse next week.
There was a sense of collective relief for getting through the first week of new testing protocols, even playing in front of an empty Heinz Field.
“Certainly, I think that going through this thing for the first time and going down and singing to the Panther Pitt (student section), because we hope they’re there in the future as well, was important,” Narduzzi said. “Every day is a step in this COVID-19 era, and we know what the atmosphere is out there and our kids have done a heck of a job.”
Ford agreed with his coach.
“It’s big, because we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season,” Ford said after the game. “Just to play one game was definitely a blessing. Not knowing was a scary part, but it felt good to finally have a win under our belt.”