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Pitt football creeps closer to ACC Coastal co-leaders

October 12, 2018

In the aftermath of Pitt’s overtime victory against Syracuse, the ACC standings painted an encouraging picture for fans. (For coach Pat Narduzzi and his team, too, but they had no time for such things while preparing for No. 5 Notre Dame.)

The Panthers (3-3, 2-1) are a half-game behind ACC Coastal co-leaders Miami (5-1, 2-0) and Virginia Tech (3-2, 2-0).

Here are some observations at midseason:

1. Haunted by the Heels

With six games remaining, Pitt has a long way to go to win that elusive Coastal championship, but at least the math works for now.

Pitt plays Miami and Virginia Tech next month, and each has a few warts.

• Miami has the best defense in the division but struggles in pass protection and special teams. The Hurricanes trailed a mediocre Florida State team, 27-7, until the last 5 minutes of the third quarter before rallying to win, 28-27, at home.

• Virginia Tech’s defense allowed 49 (Notre Dame) and 45 (Old Dominion) points in two of its past three games, and Ryan Willis, a Kansas transfer who hadn’t started since 2016, has replaced injured Josh Jackson at quarterback.

If the Panthers don’t win the division, they will be haunted by that embarrassing loss to North Carolina (1-3, 1-1).

Pitt’s nonconference schedule is difficult. The ACC? Not so much.

2. Kenny the caretaker

Perhaps Pitt’s running game has reached the point where quarterback Kenny Pickett doesn’t need to win games by himself.

Pickett completed only 11 of 20 passes for 137 yards against Syracuse, his least productive game since Week 2 against Penn State. He was sacked three times for the third consecutive game, threw an interception (his fifth) and lost a fumble.

He’s also less of a running threat, which might be by design to make him more comfortable reading defenses from the pocket.

Narduzzi said Pickett’s job wasn’t as easy as it looked in the fourth quarter when he threw only twice while Pitt was playing catch-up.

“It’s not like it’s just turn it to the right and hand it off and turn to the left and hand it off,” Narduzzi said. “There are a lot of checks, based on the safeties who are rolling and what they are doing coverage-wise.”

Narduzzi also seemed to give Pickett a pass on the fumble.

“Kenny gets smacked in the head,” he said, “gets his head torn off pretty much, and it’s a turnover on a pass play.”

Which is why Narduzzi decided not to rely on the passing game in the fourth quarter. Pitt couldn’t protect its quarterback well enough.

Pickett said he didn’t complain to the officials.

“I didn’t want to (make them mad),” he said. “I want them on my side. They didn’t call it. It is what it is.”

3. Don’t mention it

Narduzzi doesn’t like to talk about injuries, but it’s encouraging Pitt was able to win while its best pass catcher, wide receiver Taysir Mack, wore a boot on his right foot.

Mack still leads the team in receiving yards (265), but Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who ran 68 yards for a touchdown on a sideways pass, and Maurice Ffrench had a few moments.

4. Developing discipline

After averaging eight penalties per week in the first five games, Pitt committed only three, including two harmless calls for defensive offsides.

Safety Damar Hamlin’s pass interference kept a Syracuse touchdown drive alive in the first quarter, but that was the worst of it.

“That’s Pitt football,” Narduzzi said. “That’s how we should be all the time. And, hopefully, they learned their lesson like, ‘Oh, wow, if we only had three, maybe we had a chance to win the football game.’ ”

5. Defensive depth

It’s worth noting two of the three turnovers Pitt created on defense were punctuated by nonstarters.

Defensive tackle Amir Watts had his first career interception in the second quarter, the first by a Pitt interior defensive lineman since Chas Alecxih against Buffalo in 2011.

Nickel back Therran Coleman grabbed the interception that ended the game in overtime.

Pitt used three players at nickel back, including starter Damarri Mathis and freshman Marquis Williams.

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