Nov 27, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) and Syracuse Orange defensive back Eric Coley (34) in the third quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Stars to sit as No. 10 Michigan State meets No. 12 Pitt in Peach Bowl

The Peach Bowl had a nice matchup, complete with marquee offensive stars, when it announced that No. 10 Michigan State would be facing No. 12 Pittsburgh on Dec. 30.

But then the teams’ star players opted out of the game to guard against injury and to prepare for the NFL draft.

Michigan State (10-2) won’t have premier running back Kenneth Walker III, recipient of the Doak Walker and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards.

Pittsburgh (11-2) will be without Kenny Pickett, potentially the top quarterback prospect in the draft.

Their now-former college teams will still face each other Thursday night at Atlanta.

Walker finished the regular season with 1,636 rushing yards (136.3 yards per game), ranking second in the country.

“He always gave us everything he had,” coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s a tremendous player and a difference maker and that’s reflected in the awards he did receive. … If it’s not in their best interests to play, I’m going to support them.”

Pickett exploded onto the national scene in his senior season, throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. He finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, three spots above Walker.

“I can’t help it if guys end up opting out,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Everybody’s got to make a decision on their own, but bowl games are outstanding for the team, the coaches and the families. It’s part of the game everybody should enjoy.”

The Spartans likely will replace Walker with a combination of running backs, including Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins.

They also have a solid passing attack behind quarterback Payton Thorne, whose 24 touchdown passes are one shy of the school’s single-season record (set by Kirk Cousins in 2011). Wide receiver Jayden Reed caught eight of those scoring passes, while his 53 receptions averaged 17.9 yards per catch.

Tucker might also get some freshmen and sophomores ready for next season.

“There’s going to be opportunities to give more reps to some younger players,” he said. “Some guys who maybe haven’t played as much, they’ll show up in the game.”

Tucker was rewarded with a 10-year, $95-million extension after his second season at Michigan State. After a 2-5 mark in the pandemic-wracked 2020 campaign, the Spartans won their first eight games of 2021, capped by a triumph over archrival and eventual Big Ten-champion Michigan.

Losses to Purdue (40-29) and Ohio State (56-7) prevented them from reaching the Big Ten Championship Game but they ended the season with a 30-27 victory over Penn State.

“People are taking note of what we’re doing here at East Lansing,” Tucker said. “The tide is turning and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Pittsburgh’s losses came against Miami and nonconference opponent Western Michigan. The Panthers finished strong, winning their last five games, including a 45-21 romp past Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game.

Nick Patti will get the start at quarterback in place on Pickett.

“Nick is a guy that this entire room trusts,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a good football player. He can throw the ball. … We’re excited to see what Nick (can do). It’s his time in this game to show everybody who he is.”

Patti attempted only 14 passes this season but completed 12 of them for 140 yards.

He’ll have Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison as a prime target. The sophomore wideout caught 93 passes for 1,479 yards and a national-best 17 TDs.

One common opponent is Miami: Michigan State handled the Hurricanes in Miami on Sept. 18, 38-17; the Panthers lost at home against Miami, 38-34, on Oct. 30.

–Field Level Media

Nov 20, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) warms up before the game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Stakes high for No. 15 Pittsburgh, No. 16 Wake Forest in ACC title game

There should be no shortage of offense when No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 16 Wake Forest meet in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.

So whichever team’s defense figures out how to make an impact might turn out in the best shape in a matchup of 10-2 teams that made rapid rises this season.

Wake Forest is third nationally in scoring at 42.9 points per game. Pittsburgh is next at 42.8. This is the first ACC championship game with two teams averaging more than 40 points apiece.

“I kind of hope that we can get a few stops,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “It will be hard.”

The Pittsburgh defense has improved weekly, coach Pat Narduzzi said.

“A lot of points are going to be scored,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to try to eliminate the scoring (from Wake Forest) and try to score at least one more point than Wake Forest does.”

Pittsburgh has its first 10-win regular season since 1981. Wake Forest has reached a double-digit win total for the second time.

Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett was selected as the All-ACC first-team quarterback. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman was the second-team choice.

“We’ve been saying every week is a championship (and) now we’re finally in the big one,” Pickett said.

With 40 touchdown throws this year, Pickett is one shy of the single-season ACC record held by former Clemson player Deshaun Watson. Teammate Jordan Addison leads the country with 17 touchdown catches.

“It’s not just (Pickett), and he’d probably be the first person to say that,” Clawson said. “But he is certainly the engine that makes them go.”

In the last nine games, Hartman has thrown for 3,020 yards and 28 touchdowns passes.

“Our secondary is going to have to be on their toes,” Narduzzi said. “They’re where they are for a reason. They do it their way. They do it the Wake Forest way.”

Pittsburgh and Wake Forest have met just once previously, the Panthers posting a 34-13 road victory in 2018 to secure the Coastal Division title that day. Pickett threw for three touchdowns in that game.

Wake Forest unseated Clemson as the Atlantic Division representative for the title game. The reason the Demon Deacons, who lost to Clemson just two weeks ago, gained that spot was a one-game difference in the standings on North Carolina State and Clemson. That margin resulted, in part, from Clemson’s loss at Pittsburgh.

Now, the stakes will be even higher.

“You certainly want to appreciate the moment you’re in,” Wake Forest linebacker Luke Masterson said. “But at the same time, you want to take that same approach you’ve taken all year.”

Clawson said having a breakout season was possible when assessing the situation in the preseason. Contending for a championship became a reality.

“That’s the goal every year,” Clawson said. “To have a year like this you have to be a little bit fortunate. That fortune comes in winning close games. I think we won those close games because of our maturity and our ability to execute.”

Wake Forest won in 2006 in its only previous appearance in the ACC title game, defeating Georgia Tech in Jacksonville, Fla. Pittsburgh’s other appearance in the championship game came in 2018, when it lost to Clemson.

Wake Forest played at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium with limited capacity to end the 2020 season with a bowl loss to Wisconsin.

–Field Level Media

Nov 6, 2021; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) throws downfield  during the second quarter against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Pickett powers No. 25 Pittsburgh past Duke

Kenny Pickett threw for 416 yards and three touchdowns to lead 25th-ranked Pittsburgh to a 54-29 win over Duke on Saturday in an ACC contest in Durham, N.C.

Jordan Addison caught seven passes for 171 yards and a touchdown for Pitt (7-2, 4-1), which bounced back from a 38-34 loss to Miami last week and stayed on top of the ACC Coastal Division standings.

Rodney Hammond Jr. rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown and Jared Wayne reeled in five receptions for 81 yards for the Panthers.

Gunnar Holmberg completed 16 of 23 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown for Duke (3-5, 0-5), which has lost five straight games.

Leading 30-19 at halftime, Pitt scored on the first drive of the second half after Pickett connected on a 29-yard pass to Gavin Bartholomew.

After Duke cut its deficit to 37-22 on a field goal, the Panthers answered with 4:36 left in the third quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Addison.

Duke closed to within 44-29 with 13:41 remaining on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Riley Leonard to Mateo Durant.

But the Blue Devils couldn’t get any closer the rest of the game.

Pitt jumped out to a 7-0 lead with 7:09 remaining in the first quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Wayne. Duke scored the next 12 points to take a 12-7 lead, the last of those points being a 32-yard touchdown pass from Holmberg to Jalon Calhoun with 1:16 left in the first.

Pitt took a 14-12 lead with 11:59 remaining in the second quarter on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Addison. Duke regained the lead at 19-14 when Jaylen Stinson returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown.

The Panthers controlled the rest of the second quarter from there, outscoring Duke 16-0 to take a 30-19 lead at halftime.

–Field Level Media

Oct 30, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Zach McCloud (53) sacks Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Van Dyke, Miami upend No. 17 Pittsburgh

Redshirt freshman Tyler Van Dyke completed 32-of-42 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns, and Jaylan Knighton ran for two scores, leading the visiting Miami Hurricanes to a 38-34 upset win over the 17th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers in an ACC game on Saturday afternoon.

Miami (4-4, 2-2) won its second straight game as Knighton ran for 80 yards. Miami’s Charleston Rambo caught seven passes for 101 yards.

Pitt (6-2, 3-1) was led by quarterback Kenny Pickett, who completed 39-of-55 passes for 519 yards and three touchdowns.

However, Pickett, who is 1-3 against Miami in his career, was intercepted twice. Entering the game, he had been intercepted just once this season.

Panthers running back Israel Abanikanda scored twice. Pitt receiver Jordan Addison caught eight passes for 145 yards. Both players were in the concussion protocol earlier this week.

Both teams scored on 75-yard opening drives. Abanikanda ran one yard for a TD. Van Dyke hit freshman tight end Elijah Arroyo for a 20-yard TD pass.

On Pitt’s next possession, the Panthers went for it on fourth-and-three from the Miami 45, and Pickett threw incomplete.

Miami took advantage on Van Dyke’s 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end Will Mallory on a trick play that originally looked like a double reverse. But then the ball got back to Van Dyke, and Mallory was open down the right sideline.

The first quarter ended with Miami leading 21-10 as the Hurricanes got Knighton’s 40-yard TD run, and Pitt scored on Sam Scarton’s 38-yard field goal.

By halftime, Miami had stretched its lead to 31-17, getting Andre Borregales’ 26-yard field goal and Knighton’s one-yard run, which was set up by Tyrique Stevenson’s 39-yard interception return. Pitt got a 20-yard TD swing pass to Abanikanda.

Pitt scored on its first two third-quarter possessions, tying the score 31-31 on Pickett’s TD passes to Jared Wayne (12 yards) and Jaylon Barden (19).

Miami regained the lead, 38-31, on a 13-yard TD pass to Key’Shawn Smith, who made a stellar grab in the end zone with 2:15 left in the third.

With 13:55 left in fourth quarter, Scarton’s 23-yard field goal cut Pitt’s deficit to 38-34.

Miami got a crucial first down with 2:39 left on a third-and-four pass to Mallory. After picking up the first down, Mallory fumbled backward. Initially, it was ruled fourth down. But when that call was reversed on video review, Miami was able to kneel down and essentially end the game.

–Field Level Media

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei talks with media in Clemson, S.C., October 18, 2021.

Clemson Football Interviews Clemson Quarterback D J Uiagalelei

Clemson finds itself as rare underdog against No. 23 Pitt

When Clemson plays at Pittsburgh for the first time in program history on Saturday, it will do so as an underdog in an Atlantic Coast Conference game for the first time since the 2016 season.

While Pitt (5-1, 2-0 ACC) has risen to No. 23 in the polls, unranked Clemson (4-2, 3-1), in turn, already has lost two regular-season games for the first time since 2014.

Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi, however, isn’t buying the perception that the Tigers are a mere shell of their former self.

“They’re obviously a great football team,” Narduzzi said. “I know they’re not tops in the country right now, but they are talented.

“They’re one of the top scoring defenses in the country. They’re playing fantastic. (Defensive coordinator Brent) Venables has really got them going on defense.”

Narduzzi is correct on that count. The Tigers are allowing a mere 12.5 points per game, which ranks second nationally, and have allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season.

While Clemson’s defensive prowess isn’t in question, the Tigers’ offense has struggled mightily.

Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who stood out in his two starts a year ago, is completing just 55.7 percent of his passes and Clemson’s replacements at running back and wide receiver for Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers, respectively, have been injury-plagued and have yet to establish themselves as consistent threats.

Uiagalelei has four touchdown passes and three interceptions this season. His efficiency rating of 106.9 ranks last in the ACC.

“The offense is missing Trevor Lawrence,” Narduzzi said. “But they’ve still got tons of players on the field who scare the heck out of you.”

Clemson’s offense stands in stark contrast to Pitt. The Panthers rank third nationally in scoring at 48.3 points per game, with quarterback Kenny Pickett the catalyst.

Pickett has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, if not the nation. The fifth-year player ranks third nationally in passing efficiency and has 21 touchdown passes against one interception.

“He’s a rhythm thrower,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You can’t sit there and let this guy get comfortable. He’s just too good. You just don’t fool that guy.”

Clemson has enjoyed recent success against Pickett, holding him to two touchdowns while intercepting him five times in the Tigers’ most recent two games against the Panthers.

Pickett’s favorite target is Jordan Addison, who leads the ACC with nine touchdown receptions and ranks second in the league with 97.7 receiving yards per game.

“They’re throwing the ball all over the place,” Venables said. “And they’re averaging just under 80 plays per game. So they’re going to present quite a challenge.”

Pitt is the last team to deal Clemson a home loss at Memorial Stadium, topping the Tigers 43-42 midway through the 2016 season. The Tigers, however, went on to win the national championship that season.

The Tigers have since dominated both meetings against Pitt, winning 42-10 in the 2018 ACC Championship Game and 52-17 last season at Clemson.

“We’re playing them for the fourth time in seven seasons,” Narduzzi said. “It feels like they’re in our division.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 16, 2021; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA;  Virginia Tech Hokies running back Raheem Blackshear (5) is tackled by Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Erick Hallett (31) and linebacker Wendell Davis (20) during the first quarter at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Pickett helps Pittsburgh rout Virginia Tech

Kenny Pickett was 22-of-37 passing for 203 yards and two touchdowns to lead Pittsburgh to a 28-7 win over Virginia Tech in an ACC game on Saturday at Blacksburg, Va.

Israel Abanikanda rushed for 140 yards on 21 carries for Pitt (5-1, 2-0 ACC), which outgained Virginia Tech in rushing yards, 208-90.

The Panthers have now won three straight games since a loss to Western Michigan in Week 3.

Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister went 11-of-32 passing for 134 yards, one touchdown and one interception in defeat for the Hokies (3-3, 1-1).

Pitt opened the scoring with 7:35 left in the first quarter, marching 94 yards in 15 plays and taking a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Gavin Bartholomew.

With 5:52 remaining in the second quarter, Pitt took a 14-0 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Pickett, a score that was set up after an interception by Erick Hallett gave the Panthers the ball at the Virginia Tech 29-yard line.

Pitt then took a 21-0 lead with 1:36 to go in the second quarter on a 36-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Jared Wayne.

The scoring play capped a 5-play, 81-yard drive that lasted only 1:36.

The Panthers continued to pour it on to start the second half, going up 28-0 with 9:16 remaining in the third quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run by Vincent Davis.

Virginia Tech finally got on board with 6:33 to on in the third quarter, cutting Pitt’s lead to 28-7 on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Burmeister to Tayvion Robinson.

But Virginia Tech couldn’t get on the scoreboard the rest of the game in dropping its second straight.

Wayne caught six passes for 94 yards to flank Pickett and Abanikanda for Pitt, which held the ball for 38:16.

–Field Level Media

Sep 25, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Taysir Mack (11) and quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) talk before a play against the New Hampshire Wildcats during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Pickett powers Pitt past Georgia Tech

The Pittsburgh Panthers continued their torrid offensive pace with a 52-21 romp against host Georgia Tech in an Atlantic Coast Conference contest Saturday in Atlanta.

Pitt (4-1, 1-0 ACC) extended a school record by scoring 40-plus points for a fifth straight game to start the season. Kenny Pickett finished 23-of-36 passing for 389 yards with four touchdown passes to four different targets. Jordan Addison (six catches for 117 yards and a TD) and Taysir Mack (five receptions for 121 yards and a TD) both topped the century mark.

Israel Abanikanda added 60 yards rushing and two touchdowns for the Panthers, who entered No. 2 in the nation in scoring offense (52.5 points per game) and eclipsed the 50-point mark for the third time in five games.

Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2) entered with the No. 25 passing defense in the country and had allowed just 36 points combined in its first two league games. But Pickett threw for 300 yards and the Panthers had 42 points by halftime.

Jeff Simms completed 24 of 33 passes for 371 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Yellow Jackets. Jahmyr Gibbs had six catches for 125 yards.

But Georgia Tech had three empty red-zone trips thanks to a missed field goal and failed fourth-down conversions in the third and fourth quarters.

Pitt put the game away in the first half with a barrage of big plays. The Panthers intercepted each of Sims’ first two passes, the second of which resulted in John Petrishen’s 33-yard pick-six and a 14-0 lead with 9:16 left in the first quarter.

The Yellow Jackets got on the board with Sims’ 44-yard scoring strike to Nate McCollum but simply couldn’t keep pace.

Pickett threw an 11-yard touchdown to Addison for a 21-7 lead, and his 55-yard heave to Mack down the left side made it 28-7 early in the second quarter.

Georgia Tech pulled to within 28-14 on Dontae Smith’s 3-yard TD run, but Abanikanda’s second touchdown run — from 6 yards out — pushed it out to 35-7 with 6:14 left in the half. Pickett’s 16-yard touchdown to Lucas Krull gave the Panthers the 42-14 lead at the break.

–Field Level Media

Sep 18, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) warms up before the game against the Western Michigan Broncos at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Pickett, Pitt look to right ship vs. New Hampshire

Pittsburgh aims to pick itself up following last week’s letdown when it hosts FCS member New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon.

The clash against the Wildcats at Heinz Field serves as the last tune-up for the Panthers (2-1) before they play eight straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.

Offense hasn’t been the problem for Pittsburgh, which eclipsed 40 points in three consecutive games to start the season for the first time in the history of the program.

Kenny Pickett threw for 382 yards and a career-best six touchdowns in the Panthers’ 44-41 setback to Mid-American Conference opponent Western Michigan last Saturday.

Pickett moved past Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino into second place on Pittsburgh’s all-time passing yardage list. His 8,923 yards trail only career leader Alex Van Pelt (11,267 in 1989-92).

Jordan Addison reeled in a career-best three scoring strikes and finished with six catches for 124 yards last Saturday. Tight end Lucas Krull found the end zone twice to double his touchdown total on the season.

“My eye test tells you the receivers are pretty good and Kenny Pickett’s pretty good. I want to run the ball better,” Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Pickett leads the team with just 115 net rushing yards on the season.

As for the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense surrendered 517 total yards last Saturday and saw the Broncos hold the ball for 40 minutes, 15 seconds.

“Everybody looks at the yardage and all that stuff and again, it’s stats, and I always say stats are for losers, but pull the stat together yards per minute you’re on the field, OK?” Narduzzi said. “Pull up our offense per play on the field. Defense was on the field for over 40 minutes. I mean, two thirds of the game they’re on the field.”

Bret Edwards tossed two touchdown passes to Brian Espanet to lead New Hampshire (3-0) to a 19-13 win over Lafayette last Saturday.

“They’ve got a good feel for each other,” Wildcats coach Sean McDonnell said of Edwards and Espanet, who have teamed up on four touchdowns this season. “Brian’s done that his whole career here. … He has great hands and he’s got a good feel for trying to find spots in the end zone.”

Espanet’s totals in catches (13) and receiving yards (171) trail only those of Sean Coyne (16, 189) for the team lead.

Two former New Hampshire assistant coaches are now coordinators with Pittsburgh. Mark Whipple is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, while Randy Bates is the defensive coordinator.

–Field Level Media