Pitt clinches Coastal Division by cruising to win at Wake Forest
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Earlier this week, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had to approve a purchase.
Should Pitt buy a case of ACC Coastal Division champion T-shirts and hats to bring on the team’s road trip to Wake Forest?
“We came prepared,” Narduzzi said while wearing the championship gear following Pitt’s 34-13 win at BB&T Field on Saturday.
The decision was easy for Narduzzi.
“I said, ‘Get ’em. It’s gonna happen,’ ” he said.
For a half, it looked like the boxes might go unopened. Pitt’s run game sputtered early, and Wake Forest led 10-6 at the half.
That was nothing new to Narduzzi and the Panthers, however, who have trailed at the half in two of their last three wins.
“Our kids had faith in the second half,” Narduzzi said. “Where a lot of teams might panic on the road: ‘Oh gosh, we’re in a tough situation.’ ”
The Panthers rallied to outscore the Demon Deacons, 28-3, after the break, pulling away and starting the celebration.
“It’s the most excited I’ve seen our locker room,” running back Qadree Ollison said. “We get a chance to go down to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.”
Pitt (7-4, 6-1) will face Atlantic Division champion Clemson at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 1, with a chance to earn its first ACC title since joining the league in 2013. The Panthers also will have the chance to win its first outright conference championship in football. They tied for first in the Big East in 2004 and ’10.
The Panthers controlled the clock against Wake Forest, running up a season-high 39 minutes, 31 seconds time of possession to Wake’s 20:29. Pitt had four drives of five minutes or longer — one in each quarter — including a marathon 14-play, 85-yard drive that took up 8:46 of the second quarter and ended with a Darrin Hall 2-yard touchdown run to give Pitt its first lead.
Pitt also had a 5:06 possession that ended on downs in the first quarter, a 6:58 third-quarter drive culminating with a 4-yard touchdown catch by Rafael Araujo-Lopes and a 5:03 drive in the fourth quarter ending with a Maurice Ffrench 22-yard touchdown catch.
After Pitt misfired on its first four third downs, the Panthers converted nine of their next 12 to keep Wake Forest’s offense off the field.
The Wake Forest defense, depleted by injuries, wilted as the day went on.
“We just kept swinging away, swinging away,” Ollison said. “We knew we had to stay composed to win games, especially late, in November. To be a champion, you’ve got to be great in the second half. We were wearing them down. Let’s see if they’re going to keep swinging back at us in the third and fourth quarters.”
Surprisingly, Pitt’s methodical offense was led not by its vaunted running attack but by a short-passing game. Running backs Ollison and Darrin Hall were held to 52 and 45 rushing yards, respectively.
Instead, quarterback Kenny Pickett controlled the action with safe passes and occasional deep balls. Pickett set career highs in completions (23 of 30), yardage (316) and touchdowns (three), including a 63-yarder to Taysir Mack in the third quarter.
“I told Kenny before the game, this is going to be his best game yet,” Ollison said. “People question our passing game, but we showed we can do both.”
Pitt’s defense intercepted Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman twice and held the Demon Deacons to 285 yards.
The Panthers finish the regular season next week at Miami before heading back to North Carolina to play Clemson. On Saturday, however, the team took time to celebrate the division title.
“We’re still out here,” safety Damar Hamlin said. “We haven’t taken anything off, and the game’s been over for about an hour. We’re just soaking it in. It’s a big moment for the whole city. We’ve finally got something to celebrate.”
Shawn Krest is a freelance writer.