Pitt stuns No. 2 Miami behind freshman QB Kenny Pickett, stout defense
By the end of the week leading up to Pitt's stunning 24-14 upset of Miami, Brian O'Neill had heard enough and was ready to punch someone in the mouth.
Not literally, of course.
O'Neill, a junior offensive tackle, had no interest in wasting energy on the doubters who typically surround the Pitt program. He and his teammates, especially freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett in his first collegiate start, had a game to win, history to make and a new reputation to build, starting Friday at Heinz Field.
As far as Miami was concerned, that was worse than a punch in the face.
O'Neill considered the mission possible, and by mid-afternoon Pitt (5-7, 3-5) proved it to a crowd of 35,978 and a national television audience.
Undefeated Miami — No. 2 in the nation and harboring a realistic goal of a national championship — turned out to be the highest-ranked opponent Pitt has defeated at home in its history. Now, the Hurricanes' only hope of reaching the College Football Playoff spot is to beat Clemson next week in the ACC championship game, and hope for help.
"It was brought up like David vs. Goliath a couple times," O'Neill said, not happy with playing the role of the little person. "I said I don't know what you're talking about."
In O'Neill's mind, this one looked easier than Pitt's victory last year against No. 2 and eventual national champion Clemson.
"From what I see, it's a beatable team, in terms of we knew there was talent across the board (on Clemson's team) last year," O'Neill said.
So he said it. So it came to pass.
Coach Pat Narduzzi was so sure of his team that he all but predicted victory to ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams while holding a 10-7 lead at halftime.
"I had confidence at halftime," Narduzzi said, "confidence the whole game that if we executed and did what we were supposed to and (paid) attention to all of the little details, that we'd win the football game.
"When you believe and you have faith, anything can happen. I guess I believed."
Behind a stout defense that broke up 11 passes and recorded four sacks and a freshman quarterback unafraid to claim the huddle as his own, Pitt made beating No. 2 teams an annual event.
"It's what we do, beat No. 2 teams," junior linebacker Elijah Zeise said. "Simple as that."
In the process, Pitt found in Pickett a quarterback for the future who not only can put some zip on the ball but also can demand others to zip their mouths when he's trying to talk.
That happened in the fourth quarter when Pitt was trying to hold onto a 17-7 lead.
"Two guys were talking (in the huddle) at one point in the fourth quarter when it looked like we were going to drive down and score and win," O'Neill said. "He looked at them and grabbed them and told them to shut up. You want that out of your quarterback.
" 'All right. Yes, sir. You call the shots. You're running the show.' "
Next thing anyone knew, Pickett was running 22 yards for his second touchdown of the game, a 24-7 lead and an all-but-certain victory.
Pickett completed 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown, a 5-yard shovel pass to running back Qadree Ollison in the third quarter. He also ran for 60 yards, second only to Ollison's 62.
But this was a victory for the Pitt defense as much as it was Pickett's. With only one senior among them, nine players broke up passes, including defensive linemen Mike Herndon, Rashad Wheeler and Shane Roy who knocked them down at the line of scrimmage.
"I could go on and on about guys making plays," Narduzzi said.
Miami quarterback Malik Rosier completed only 15 of 34 attempts and was benched briefly in the fourth quarter. The victory was cemented when cornerback Avonte Maddox strip-sacked Rosier and defensive end Dewayne Hendrix recovered the fumble. All that remained was Pickett leading his team into victory formation and taking three knees.
"It goes back to hit them in the mouth, right at the beginning," Zeise said. "They were having trouble, looking around, trying to figure out where the blitz was coming from. The quarterback was getting it out of his hands pretty quick."
Maddox, the lone senior on defense, was proud his teammates remained focused throughout a difficult season that will keep Pitt out of a bowl game for the first time in 10 years.
"You got some guys who know how to play the game," he said. "They don't give up. Every day, every game, every play, every moment, we competed."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.