Kevin Gorman: Pitt falls flat in second half of season opener against Virginia
It was a picture-perfect setting for a season opener.
Pitt looked resplendent in its new royal blue and university gold uniforms. The playing surface was impeccable, and the temperature at kickoff was 72 degrees.
All the Panthers had to do was open with a victory.
That was the problem.
ACC Coastal Division favorite Virginia took an early lead, then recovered from a halftime deficit for a 30-14 victory Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Pitt had no answers.
1. Slow start: What I wanted to see most was the impact Pitt’s new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, would have on junior quarterback Kenny Pickett.
When Virginia won the coin toss and deferred, the Panthers got the ball. And the new-and-improved Pickett fell flat, throwing three consecutive incomplete passes. In Pitt’s second possession, he completed a 3-yarder to V’Lique Carter followed by a pair of incomplete passes.
In Pitt’s first two offensive series, Pickett was 1 of 6 for 3 yards. The Panthers had possession for a total of 41 seconds. By the end of the first quarter, Pitt trailed 10-0.
2. Turning point: Virginia, by contrast, scored on its first two possessions.
The Cavaliers started their third drive with a 27-yard pass to Hasise Dubois to the Pitt 49. Just when the Panthers looked like they were in serious trouble, the defense came up with back-to-back big plays.
The first was by Deslin Alexandre, who was tasked with replacing Pitt’s top defensive player when end Rashad Weaver was lost to a season-ending torn ACL in camp.
Alexandre sacked Cavaliers QB Bryce Perkins for a 4-yard loss. On the next play, Perkins was dropped for a 3-yard loss to force a third-and-17 pass that fell incomplete.
Virginia dominated the first quarter, with a 6-minute, 14-second advantage in time of possession, a 71-13 edge in total yards and six first downs to Pitt’s one.
That changed in the second quarter.
3. Pickett’s change: As inaccurate as Pickett was in the first quarter, he started the second by completing three consecutive passes.
The first one found A.J. Davis on a wheel route for a 59-yard gain to the Virginia 20. That was followed by a 12-yarder to Maurice Ffrench to the Virginia 2.
Two plays later, A.J. Davis scored to cut it to 10-7.
Late in the half, Pickett led the Panthers on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. He was at his best when the play broke down, scrambling for gains of 11 and 3 yards on back-to-back plays, forcing Virginia to call a timeout.
The crowd came alive, only for Pickett to throw behind a wide-open Carter on the next play. But Pickett scrambled for 9 yards to the Virginia 6. On third-and-goal, he fired a 3-yard touchdown pass to Apollo-Ridge grad Tre Tipton with 38 seconds left.
Suddenly, Pitt had a 14-13 halftime lead.
Now, it was up to the Panthers to keep it.
4. Tough turnover: Pickett’s counterpart was even more dangerous in scrambling for yards.
Perkins escaped pocket pressure on a third-and-10 to scramble for a 27-yard gain. That set up the go-ahead field goal, a 45-yarder by Brian Delaney for a 16-14 lead at 11:54 of the third quarter.
That’s when the Panthers self-destructed.
Pickett’s first-down pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. On second down, he found a wide-open Taysir Mack downfield for what could have been a game-changing play only to see the ball bounce off Mack’s hands.
That’s when Pickett made a costly mistake, throwing an interception to outside linebacker Matt Gahm.
Virginia needed only five plays to get into the end zone, as Perkins threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Dubois for a 23-14 lead at 8:23 of the third quarter.
Pitt responded by marching from its own 35 to the Virginia 28, only for Pickett to take a 4-yard sack on third-and-9 and Alex Kessman to miss a 50-yard field goal.
Now, the Panthers were in trouble.
5. Facing deficit: A nine-point lead shouldn’t seem insurmountable in college football.
It’s not that Pitt couldn’t overcome Virginia. The Panthers couldn’t get out of their own way.
They converted a pair of third downs, got a 19-yard pass play to Tipton and picked up another 15 yards on a personal foul penalty by Zane Zandier, a Thomas Jefferson grad, to the Virginia 36.
But Pickett was sacked on successive plays. On third-and-23 at the 49, Pickett rolled right and threw a pass that was intercepted by Virginia safety Joey Blount with 7:40 remaining.
That sequence was simply crushing, as was Pitt’s season-opening loss.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .