PITTSBURGH – Kenny Pickett ended his Heinz Field career the same way he began it – with a big win. Pitt defeated Virginia 48-38 on Saturday to clinch the ACC Coastal Division.
The Panthers (No. 18 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings) will play in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 4. Pitt also secured its first nine-win season since 2009, when the Panthers finished 10-3.
It is the second ACC Coastal Division championship for the Panthers since 2018 though Pat Narduzzi says this one is different because the team was able to win it at home this time. The 2018 division title was won at Wake Forest.
“What feels different is being able to do it in our hometown, in Pittsburgh, in front of our Panther fans. They deserved that today,” Narduzzi said.
“That was fun to do it here as opposed to down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by ourselves. We had a few fans there. But to be able to do it there, have a trophy presentation there in Heinz Field, is historic for our guys.”
The matchup between the ACC’s two most productive quarterbacks lived up to the hype as Pickett and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong put on a show on Saturday afternoon. The two combined for 827 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
While Armstrong put up better stats than Pickett, it was the senior quarterback and his favorite wide receiver, sophomore Jordan Addison, who were the story of the day. Pickett completed 26 of 41 passes for four touchdowns – all to Addison – and two interceptions.
Five days after being named one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which is presented annually to the country’s outstanding receiver in college football, Addison finished the day with 14 receptions for 202 yards – both career highs – and scores of 11, 18, 34, and 62 yards.
Addison’s four touchdown receptions tied the Pitt program single-game record set by Julius Dawkins in 1981 (against Cincinnati and Army) and tied by Billy Davis in 1994 (Rutgers).
“If Jordan Addison didn’t get the Biletnikoff today, I don’t know who does,” Narduzzi said.
“He played out of his mind again,” Pickett said. “He made every play. I made sure I knew where No. 3 was at all times. He gave us a chance to win, he gives us our best chance, and I can’t say enough great things about Jordan.”
Two of Addison’s touchdown receptions came on fourth down. In the second quarter, on fourth-and-4, Pickett escaped a sack and hit a wide-open Addison in the back of the end zone for an 18-yard score. Midway through the third quarter, the Panthers faced fourth-and-1 in Virginia territory when Pickett dropped back and connected with Addison for a 34-yard touchdown.
The sophomore receiver became the first Pitt player to eclipse 200 receiving yards since Larry Fitzgerald had 207 on eight receptions at Rutgers on Oct. 18, 2003.
Narduzzi credited offensive coordinator Mark Whipple with the call to throw on fourth-and-1.
“Coach Whipple had the plan. It’s not easy as a head coach watching us throw the ball on fourth-and-1. They thought it was there, and it was,” Narduzzi said. “It was a great call, and we made some big plays.”
Addison also had a 39-yard punt return that gave the Panthers good field position at the Virginia 38 in the second quarter. The return set up a drive that would ultimately end in a 36-yard Sam Scarton field goal to give Pitt a 24-14 lead with three minutes left in the first half.
Addison’s big punt return came on the heels of Israel Abanikanda’s 98-yard kick return touchdown that occurred 90 seconds earlier. Abanikanda’s return was Pitt’s first kick return touchdown since Maurice Ffrench returned the opening kick of the second half against Notre Dame in South Bend on Oct. 13, 2018.
Abanikanda’s return touchdown came just after Virginia had tied the game at 14.
The Panthers took a 41-31 lead with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game after Virginia penalties extended the Pitt drive twice – once after Coen King was flagged for defensive pass interference as the Panthers faced fourth-and-1 from the Virginia 30. Three plays later, it looked like Virginia would hold Pitt to a field goal, but the Cavaliers jumped on the attempt, giving Pitt a first and goal at the Virginia 5-yard line. The Panthers were backed up to the 10 after getting called for an ineligible receiver downfield, but a 9-yard reception by Addison set the Panthers up at the 1, and freshman tailback Rodney Hammond punched it in.
Armstrong and the Cavaliers weren’t done, though. They needed just two plays and 25 seconds for a 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 39-yard Ra’Shaun Henry score to pull Virginia within three.
After each defense made a stand, the Panthers got the ball at their own 23 with 3:47 remaining in the game. After Hammond ran the ball four consecutive times, forcing Virginia to call its final two timeouts, Pickett hit Addison on third-and-5 in traffic for a 20-yard gain that Addison took the rest of the way for a 62-yard touchdown.
“It’s one of those 50-50 (balls),” Pickett said of the play. “I threw it on a rope and I trust Jordan to go make the play, and he comes down with it.
“That’s just the kind of trust and faith I have in him every time he runs out there.”
“Jordan played a tremendous game today. When that ball was thrown, we thought it was gonna be intercepted though, his last touchdown,” linebacker John Petrishen said. “He snatched it out of the air and made the play of the game for sure.
“I expect to see that on SportsCenter later.”
Pickett said he and Addison hadn’t practiced that particular route as much as he would have liked, especially given the game circumstances at that time, but credited Addison for adjusting in the moment.
Addison admitted the Virginia defender got his hands on the ball during that play.
“He almost had it and I just had to go get it,” Addison said with a grin.
With three of Addison’s four touchdowns coming on third or fourth down, Addison said the faith the coaching staff has shown in him has given him confidence.
“It really just shows me how much trust they have in me to go out there and make that play, and that gives me a lot of confidence,” Addison said.
The Cavaliers got the ball back with just over two minutes remaining and no timeouts. They moved the ball 73 yards in 51 seconds, but were stopped on fourth-and-2 at the Pitt 14 and the Panthers ended the game in victory formation as Pickett knelt down twice to run out the clock.
“I think it’s huge, ending on the fourth-down stop that we did,” Petrishen said. “I remember telling the guys – I think it was third-and-2 – I said, ‘We got two more downs to win this thing,’ and we did. We stopped them on third and fourth down there and it was huge.
“It was a big confidence boost for us going forward knowing that we did our part to close the game out. It’s always great when you end in victory formation.”
Pickett broke yet another Pitt record as he passed Rod Rutherford for the most passing yards in a single season. Rutherford threw for 3,679 yards in 2003; after Saturday’s game, Pickett has thrown for 3,857 yards this season. Pickett has also thrown 36 touchdowns this year, one shy of the Pitt record shared by Rutherford and Dan Marino.
“I really enjoyed today,” Pickett said. “I couldn’t ask for a better ending at Heinz.”
Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pitt football and basketball for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey