Pat Narduzzi’s preseason prediction that Pitt would play for the ACC championship was on the line Saturday when Virginia Tech visited Heinz Field.
The Panthers entered the game in first place in the ACC Coastal, needing to beat the Hokies to become bowl eligible. A win at Wake Forest next week would clinch Pitt’s first division title in six seasons.
This was the kind of game, with so much promise, where Pitt left its fans disappointed so many times before. Yet the Panthers played like they had nothing to lose, as the seniors led the way in a 52-22 victory.
1. Third-down difference: The opening drives were telling as third-down conversions played a pivotal role in the first half.
Virginia Tech picked up first down on its first two plays but came up short on a third-and-4 at the Pitt 46 when fifth-year senior linebacker Elijah Zeise sniffed out a swing pass to Steven Peoples in the right flat and dropped him for a 3-yard loss to force a punt.
The Panthers, conversely, saw Kenny Pickett connect with Taysir Mack for 9 yards on a third-and-5 at the Pitt 18 and again on a third-and-8 at the 29 for 26 yards on a post pattern.
Pickett bobbled the snap on a third-and-7, so Pitt had to settle for an Alex Kessman 48-yard field goal. But the Panthers converted 3 of 5 third downs, and Virginia Tech was 3 of 9.
2. Big-play Panthers: If Pitt appeared one-dimensional, it’s because the Panthers’ one-two punch of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall at running back has been so productive.
Hall was coming off a 229-yard game at Virginia, and Ollison had 149 in the previous game against Duke, so Virginia Tech had to be prepared for Pitt to rely upon its 225-pound backs.
On the second series, however, Ollison broke a 27-yarder up the middle. Two plays later, Hall burst free for a 53-yard gain that set up Ollison’s 8-yard touchdown run for a 10-0 lead.
In the first half, Ollison had runs of 27, 32 and 21, and Hall had runs of 53 and 58 yards. But it wasn’t limited to the backs. In the first half alone, Pitt had eight plays of 20 yards or more as Pickett found Maurice Ffrench for a 78-yard touchdown and hit Mack for gains of 26 and 43 yards, the latter to set up another score.
3. Ffrench dressing: Ffrench has been a special teams star, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns.
But it hadn’t translated to downfield success as a receiver as he was averaging 15.5 yards on 19 catches.
Pickett and Ffrench couldn’t seem to get on the same page — until Pitt’s third possession. That’s when Pickett found Ffrench along the right sideline for a 78-yard touchdown after Ffrench caught the ball over cornerback Jermaine Waller.
It was the longest pass play since 2016, when Nathan Peterman threw a 79-yarder to Dontez Ford against Syracuse.
Ffrench added a 33-yard return early in the fourth quarter, drawing an additional 15 yards after a late hit by kicker Jordan Stout.
4. Pickett in charge: Pickett was having one of his finest performances of the season, and the Panthers were about to score on their fourth consecutive possession.
On third-and-6 at the Virginia Tech 18, the Pitt quarterback ran right for a 15-yard gain and was headed for the end zone. At the 3, safety Reggie Floyd knocked the ball loose, and it bounced into the end zone, where linebacker Rico Kearney recovered.
Instead of a Pitt touchdown, the Hokies got a touchback.
But Pickett’s play was promising as he completed 7 of 10 passes for 162 yards in the first half. Pickett only threw for more yards in a full game three times this season: 197 yards against Georgia Tech, 174 against North Carolina and 163 at UCF.
Pickett might not have been the most impressive player for the Panthers, but his play was their most promising development.
5. Double trouble: After taking a 31-7 lead into halftime, the Panthers had their share of defensive breakdowns in allowing two Virginia Tech touchdowns and a 2-point conversion.
But the senior backs shined again in the second half, Hall broke off a 73-yard touchdown run with five minutes left in the third quarter. Ollison added a 31-yard scoring run at 7:48 of the fourth for a 46-22 lead, then busted a 97-yard touchdown run with 4:43 left in the game.
That marked the longest play in Pitt history, eclipsing Hall’s 92-yard run against Duke last year.
Hall finished with seven carries for 186 yards and a touchdown and Ollison 16 carries for 235 yards and three scores. It marked the third time this season that Pitt had a pair of 100-yard rushers, and the second time the duo accomplished the feat. They also each had 100-plus against Syracuse.
Ollison also became only the sixth Panthers player to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons, joining Tony Dorsett (four times), Curvin Richards, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and James Conner (two each). Ollison has 1,054 yards this season. He had 1,121 as a redshirt freshman in 2015, when he was ACC offensive rookie of the year.
It didn’t matter which one was doing the damage.
On senior day, Pitt’s senior backs shined for a final time at home.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.