PITTSBURGH – The Pitt Panthers, left for dead just four weeks ago after a five-point loss to Notre Dame that dropped their record to 3-4, are just one win away from the ACC Championship Game following a 52-22 win over Virginia Tech in their home finale at Heinz Field on Saturday.
The win made the Panthers bowl eligible, a year after they missed a bowl game last year for the first time in a decade.
It was only fitting that the seniors stole the show on senior day. Pitt’s senior running backs – Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison – had quite a performance in their final home game. Ollison scored three touchdowns and amassed 235 yards, bringing his season total to 1,054. Hall finished with one touchdown and 186 yards on just seven carries.
A visibly emotional Pat Narduzzi choked up when discussing his seniors.
“It’s a great way to send our seniors out,” Narduzzi said. “I told our kids afterwards, you watch Qadree Ollison up on that ladder singing that fight song and it’s hard to believe that’s the last time he’s going to get to stand up on that ladder.”
The Panthers settled for a field goal on their first drive of the game, but scored a touchdown on their next offensive series. Ollison and Hall combined for 88 yards on the drive, which culminated in an 8-yard touchdown run by Ollison.
Pitt added on less than a minute into the second quarter, when quarterback Kenny Pickett hit wide receiver Maurice Ffrench over the middle for a 78-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage to put the Panthers up 17-0.
The Hokies would get on the board following a Pickett fumble deep in Virginia Tech territory. They drove 80 yards in four plays to cut Pitt’s lead to ten.
Ffrench would score again and senior fullback George Aston would jump over the line for 1-yard touchdown and Pitt took a 31-7 lead into halftime.
Following Pitt going three-and-out on the first drive of the second half, it looked like Virginia Tech was settling into a rhythm offensively. The Hokies drove 80 yards in 17 plays for a touchdown and made a two-point conversion to bring the score to 31-15.
The Hokies didn’t get much momentum though, as Hall took a handoff 73 yards for a touchdown on the second play of Pitt’s next drive.
Ollison put the nail in the coffin with his second touchdown—a 31-yarder midway through the fourth quarter, which put the Panthers up 45-22 with time running out for the Hokies.
A few minutes later, Ollison stiff-armed a defender en route to a 97-yard touchdown run. He flipped into the end zone to make the score 52-22.
The tailback earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the play, but there wasn’t a soul decked in gold and blue in Heinz Field who seemed to mind.
Ollison’s 97-yard touchdown set a new Pitt record for longest rush and longest play in school history. The previous record was a 92-yard touchdown run by Hall against Duke last season.
“After the run, I told him ‘there’s no other player that I want to get this (record) but you,’” Hall said after the game.
“He deserved it. He was unselfish and I’m glad he broke it.”
The two running backs have forged a close relationship and have shown support for one another. Narduzzi has described Hall and Ollison as “the epitome of selflessness.”
That selflessness was on display again after Pitt’s big win over the Hokies.
“Y’all are up here talking about me but this man Darrin – seven carries, 186 yards, that’s 27 yards a carry,” Ollison said with a smile. “I was telling him to save some long runs for me.”
“We’re not competing against each other,” Hall said. “We’re just trying to win games. We don’t care who gets the credit, we’re just going to go out there and give it our best.”
It was fitting that the two Pitt running backs had a big day when two former Pitt running backs were in the house – both Tony Dorsett and James Conner were on hand today. They are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on Pitt’s career rushing yards leaderboard.
“They paved the way for us,” Hall said of the two Pitt greats. “To play like that in front of them is great.”
There was another person at the game who Hall was thinking about.
“This is the first game my daughter was here,” Hall said of his 3-month-old daughter, Elliona, who was born shortly before the season began. “I just wanted to make it special.”
The Panthers made this win special, but don’t expect them to celebrate too much.
“I’ll feel good until about 11 o’clock,” Narduzzi said. “Then tomorrow morning I’ll have a stomachache worrying about the next one.”
“We finally got a chance to do something that we’ve been trying to do for four years,” Hall said of a possible trip to the ACC Championship Game. “We’re so close, we just got to continue to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time.”