Sack-happy Pitt runs win streak to 4, holds on against Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – When Kenny Pickett saw too many smiles on his teammates’ faces at halftime, he thought something needed to be said.
And as the Pitt quarterback and a leader who demands — and deserves — respect, he was the one to say it.
Pitt was on its way to another sweat-through-your-shirt victory Friday night, 27-20, against a Syracuse team that didn’t know when it was licked. But Pitt’s 24-6 halftime lead might have made too many players too happy, if not complacent.
Pickett noticed and, after coach Pat Narduzzi addressed the team in the locker room, the junior quarterback and two-year starter stepped up, spoke his mind and left no doubt what he was thinking and who’s in charge of the locker room.
“I didn’t like the kind of vibe we were having,” Pickett said. “Everyone was too happy and it was only halftime. I just felt I had to step up and make sure we got locked in for the second half.
“Too many (players) smiling. I play this game real seriously. I give everything I got.
“The game was far from over. We learned that from last week (when Pitt lost a 26-3 lead to Duke before rallying to win).
“When I came in, I saw guys smiling and I really didn’t like it, so I just wanted to make sure we all came back down to earth and got the job down right.”
Funny thing, though. His words, actually, didn’t lead to continued dominance.
Pitt’s defense collected nine sacks in the game — the most in 18 years — to give the Panthers 36 for the season. An impressive total of 10 different players contributed to those sacks, and eventually starting Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito was chased from the game.
The offense contributed, too, scoring two touchdowns in 4 minutes, 30 seconds late in the first half to build the big lead. But it managed only Alex Kessman’s 34-yard field goal – his second of the game — in the second half.
Syracuse (3-4, 0-3) outplayed and outscored Pitt, 14-3, in the second half behind backup quarterback Clayton Welch.
“No. 11, I wish I knew his name,” Narduzzi said. “He gave them a little spark, threw some nice deep balls (a 94-yard touchdown pass to Taj Harris early in the second half).”
Meanwhile, the Panthers committed eight more penalties, giving them 36 in the past three games. There also were several drops on both sides of the ball and another muffed punt, this time by Maurice Ffrench, that led to a Syracuse field goal.
All of it kept Syracuse in the fight. Narduzzi likes winning, but not necessarily this way.
“Our kids find a way to win,” he said. “We don’t do it the easy way. A lot of critical mistakes in the game.”
In the end, the Panthers (5-2, 2-1) won by making a key stop on defense in the fourth quarter. When Syracuse could have cut the lead to four, Pitt forced a 49-yard field-goal attempt that kicker Andre Szmyt sent wide left.
After Syracuse did cut the lead to 27-20 with 2:44 left, Pitt ran out the clock with its running game, using A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis to gain 21 yards and two first downs on four decisive carries.
“We had to lean on the running game a lot,” said A.J. Davis, who returned after missing the past two games with an injury and ran for 103 yards on 16 cararies. “We wouldn’t have done it without the hogs (offensive linemen). The hogs put their foot down and did it.”
Pickett, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns, said he believed his teammates appreciated what he said and how he said it.
“I’m sure they did. If they didn’t, it’s OK,” he said. “I don’t need to be liked by everybody. They will all respect me because I give all I have and I feel I’m the leader of this team so I said what I think needed to be said.”
Pickett took a beating himself, getting sacked three times.
“That guy’s like a linebacker playing quarterback,” Narduzzi said. “He’s relentless. He’s going to fight for his football team. He wasn’t coming out of the game, I’ll tell you that. He shows a lot of courage.”
A.J Davis said he was shocked by Pickett’s frankness. “He really got in front of the team and I was like, `Whoa, OK, he’s serious.’ ”
The victory pushed Pitt’s winning streak to four in a row, but Narduzzi went back to work Saturday morning, getting ready for Miami while wanting more from his team.
“We finished them,” he said, “but not in the particular way we’d like to.”
Added Pickett: “We have to learn how to win and finish the game the right way. I think we’re still trying to learn how to do that.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .