Pitt rallies for improbable victory against No. 15 Central Florida
During the timeout before the play that led Pitt to its 35-34 victory against No. 15 Central Florida on Saturday, there was indecision on the sideline.
It was fourth down in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. Pitt trailed by six on the UCF 3 and had only one more chance to redeem itself for blowing a 21-0 lead.
“We were thinking about changing it,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said of the play call.
But offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, whose fertile offensive mind put it in the playbook, intervened.
“Nah,” he said, according to Pickett. “It’s going to be a walk-in. It’s going to be six.”
Coach Pat Narduzzi called it the “Pitt Special,” with a show of respect toward the Philadelphia Eagles, who called it the “Eagles Special” and used it to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
The play called for three players to do things not usually included in their job description.
• Running back A.J. Davis took the snap in wildcat formation.
• Davis flipped it to senior wide receiver Aaron Mathews, who hadn’t thrown a pass since his high school days at Clairton.
• Pickett lined up a step off the line of scrimmage, pretending to be a 225-pound offensive lineman.
“Their D end jumped outside, so I tried to act like I was blocking him for a reverse,” Pickett said. “I just threw him by and tried to leak into the end zone, and Aaron did a great job getting it up.”
Mathews became the third Pitt player to throw a touchdown pass in the game as Pickett fell to the ground and cradled the football safely against his chest.
Asked if he was nervous, Mathews calmly said, “I’m never nervous. I’m anxious more than anything. I’ll never get nervous playing something I love.”
Pickett said: “We had that play in since the second week of camp, maybe. We practice it so many times. You know you got it.”
Mathews said Saturday was only the second time it was run in live action.
“When he called it, we were all juiced up, ready to go,” Pickett said.
Narduzzi was asked if he had any misgivings about the risks involved in a play that would either win or lose the game.
“No, I mean, you have to have belief. You don’t believe or what?” he said to the reporter asking the question. “The worst thing you can do to an offensive coordinator is say, ‘Are you sure?’
“He’s got confidence. I got confidence.”
And now, perhaps, Pitt (2-2) has confidence heading into the final eight games of the season. The victory rocked the college football world as much as any game Saturday as it snapped Central Florida’s 27-game, non-bowl winning streak.
And it almost didn’t happen. UCF (3-1) scored 31 consecutive points to take a 31-21 lead in the third quarter after trailing at halftime, 21-10.
Meanwhile, Pitt kicker Alex Kessman missed two field goals, the Panthers committed eight penalties for a loss of 95 yards and UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel completed 25 of 42 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns. Pitt played much of the second half without starting cornerbacks Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock, who were injured.
Plus, Pickett played the fourth quarter with a sore shoulder after falling on it after running for 11 yards.
He left the game and went to the locker room long enough for redshirt freshman Nick Patti to throw a touchdown pass to Dontavious Butler-Jenkins.
“Kenny didn’t want to come out,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t even want to tell you what he said on the field. He came storming out of the locker room ready to roll.”
He was strong enough to lead the winning drive from the Pitt 21 and finish with 25 completions in 47 attempts for 224 yards.
Pickett said he told the trainers to “get my you know what up (off the ground). I wanted to get back in the game.”
Pickett returned but played the fourth quarter in pain.
“I grew up, coached hard, playing through pain,” he said. “My dad did a great job coaching me and pushing me to be ready for moments like that so when it comes, it’s just another day.
“Be a leader and tough it out.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .