Dane Jackson's pick 6 gives Blue 10-3 victory in Pitt spring game
The two most important thoughts smart players, coaches and fans will take from Pitt's glorified practice Saturday were these:
• Don't get too critical of the offense, even though the winning team managed only one first down.
• Slow down praise for the defense. How many of those 13 noncontact sacks would have turned into positive gains if not for coach Pat Narduzzi's quick whistle? (Quarterback Kenny Pickett said there was only one for sure, but he had yet to look at the video.)
Pitt's Blue-Gold Spring Game, staged in front of a crowd of 8,089 at Heinz Field, was merely the 15th and final practice of the spring. It didn't prove anything, but it raised hopes that won't be fulfilled and questions that won't be answered for, at least, another five months.
The Blue defeated the Gold, 10-3, getting 10 times as many points as first downs. But that wasn't the most important part of the day.
"We came out of it healthy," Narduzzi said. "That's probably the most important thing. We'll go into this summer conditioning as healthy as we've been."
Many key players, including offensive tackle Alex Bookser and fullback George Aston, were pulled about halfway through the game, thanks to a coach who remembered Brian O'Neill hurting his shoulder in the fourth quarter of last year's game.
"I wasn't letting that happen this year," Narduzzi said.
Perhaps Pitt's defense is ahead of the offense, especially with the return of middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis, defensive ends Rashad Weaver and Dewayne Hendrix rushing off either side of the line and the secondary looking deeper and more athletic than in recent years.
"He's a real force in the middle," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said of Wirginis, who was suspended and then injured all of last year. "You really feel him when we go against him. He's an impact player."
Weaver and Hendrix each recorded 1½ sacks. Weaver added a 5-yard tackle for a loss and Narduzzi believes he knows why. "Those two did not miss a practice. That's not Dewayne Hendrix's nature in the past.
"Those two will be a force to deal with."
But the biggest plays were turned in by junior cornerback Dane Jackson, whose 60-yard interception return for a touchdown broke a 3-3 tie in the final minute.
It was part athleticism, part awareness and part deception.
Pickett, who completed 13 of 23 passes for 140 yards, was moving the team downfield with short passes, trying to wring as much as he could out of what Watson called "a vanilla" offense.
"They kept doing the same thing," Jackson said. "I got that pick on the third time. I knew I would be able to sit on it, and I just sat on it. When I saw (Pickett) look that way, I just broke."
Pickett called it the only wrong decision he made all day. "Which was borderline," he added. "He baited it and bailed out. My read was to go short and he stuck his foot in the ground and made a good play."
Afterwards, Jackson's Blue teammates were happy to have avoided overtime — Narduzzi said the competitor in him would have welcomed it — and perhaps a little surprised by the speed that carried him into the end zone.
"He opened everybody's eyes when he turned the jets on," said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who was in charge of the Blue team. "It looked like the guys in the white jerseys had angles on him, and he outran them. Maybe you'll see him do more kick return and punt return after that touchdown."
Narduzzi said it will be a good lesson for Pickett.
"You have to learn to deal with that adversity," Narduzzi said. "It's not a bad thing. It's sometimes good. It will motivate him even more for the summer."
Narduzzi is also cautious about what his defense might become. Both offenses totaled 194 yards (in four 10-minute quarters with a running clock), but he can see depth developing from front to back.
"We'll find out in September," he said. "You don't win a championship in the middle of April. I think we have depth.
"Are we a championship caliber defense yet? I don't know. But I think we can be pretty good.
"Are we great? I don't know we'll find out."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.