Well, that was unexpected.
I personally thought we’d see a much closer game with so much on the line for both teams but it was clear that one was significantly better than the other. That turned out to be the home Pitt Panthers as they dominated the Virginia Tech Hokies in a surprising 52-22 win.
The victory gets the Panthers’ magic number to win the Coastal Division down to one and puts them even more in charge with games remaining against Wake Forest and Miami. At this point, the odds are even greater that Pitt appears in the ACC Championship game and, on a lesser note, Pitt is now 6-4 and officially bowl eligible.
As has been the case all year long, the Panthers were carried by the running game. Seniors Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison ran wild with numerous big gains and a total of 421 yards. Seeing those guys dominate so much on Senior Day, in particular, was just a lot of fun. Pitt even got a bit of passing, sparked by a long touchdown completion to Maurice Ffrench. The Panthers didn’t go crazy on that side of the ball as quarterback Kenny Pickett had only 162 passing yards. But they took several shots downfield and provided enough of a threat there to at least keep Virginia Tech honest.
I keep insisting that Pitt is going to have to eventually be able to throw the ball a little better. That these running backs can’t do it all. Each week, though, they keep proving me wrong and I’m done doubting those guys. If they are eventually slowed down, that will be the surprise - regardless of opponent. They are just playing at video game levels right now.
In all, Pitt had 654 yards of offense, which turned out to be a school record. Given Pitt’s history of dynamite offensive players such as Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Larry Fitzgerald, Lesean McCoy, and others, that is quite the achievement.
I’m pretty surprised at what Pitt has done the last two weeks. Each game came against a team that controlled its own destiny and Pitt left no question by the end of the game about who the better team was. These were not teams playing with nothing to lose, folks. Both had high hopes of winning the Division themselves and Virginia even had the benefit of playing at home on a Friday night game in front of a good crowd. Neither could manage enough to defeat the Panthers and, in the case of Virginia Tech, they couldn’t even come close.
The Panthers went on the road into Virginia and won by ten points before absolutely murdering the Hokies today. I expected more from both opponents and a lot of credit should be given to the team and coaching staff for absolutely showing up in big-game situations. Fans have been very hard on both for disappearing under the spotlight and this team is not only surviving under the bright lights, but thriving.
The focus will be on the offense today, as it should. But defensively, you take what Pitt gave you, too. There were some bad breakdowns, such as allowing the Virginia quarterback to ramble for a big gain after wrapping him up and having him all but on the ground. There was a touchdown where defenders Jason Pinnock and Phil Campbell didn’t wrap up a receiver and allowed him to get an easy score. But you take 22 points today. You take 213 passing yards. And you even take the rushing gains the Hokies got along with the 28 first downs because the defense bent but didn’t broke.
I’ve said it the last few weeks and it remains true today. But that Pitt is able to continually run for so many yards even when teams know what’s coming remains a big shock to me. But it’s pretty clear right now that the offensive line and Hall and Ollison are just too good.
And, by the way, we’re beyond the point of questioning if this team is good or not, too.
The Panthers have had their question marks all year long, really. And even once they began winning games in the conference, the arguments have always been that the team still isn’t all that good. Those arguments, by the way, have come from me, too. I’ve repeatedly leaned towards this team not being very good and thought their success was more a result of the teams they’ve played in the ACC. At some point, though, you’ve got to start to recognize the obvious. And that is that, at the very least, this team is significantly better than we gave them credit for.
Now, that hasn’t always been evident. But even some of the head-scratchers can be explained away to some degree. Pitt was drubbed by Penn State, for one thing. There’s no doubt about it and that 51-6 score was ugggly. But the Panthers were also right there, trailing only 14-6 in the third quarter before they completely fell apart. Rainy night, things just snowballed. Penn State was surely the better team but are not 45 points better than Pitt.
Pitt was absolutely dominated by Central Florida and, frankly, was never in that one, losing 45-14. But that was also on the road against a legitimate top ten team. Now, there’s no explaining the North Carolina thing to me but all teams, even the good ones, almost always have a game or two where they simply don’t show up.
Don’t buy those rationalizations or not? That’s fine. But guess what — sometimes teams just get better as the year goes on. There’s nothing to say that Pitt was legitimately not very good early this season and has simply improved since then.
Pitt fans know that concept full well and only have to look back to the 2016 season. The Panthers dominated Penn State in the first half before holding on for a narrow win that year. What happened after that? The Nittany Lions went 10-1 and reached the Rose Bowl.
Most teams improve as the year goes on and sometimes, teams improve a lot. I’m willing to concede that is what’s happening to Pitt.
Don’t get me wrong. We can surmise with the earlier losses that Pitt is not a great team. Trying to make the argument that this is a top ten team or anything like that would be ridiculous. But this is a team that has played a very difficult schedule and, with two games left, is now 6-4 and has a strong chance of playing in the ACC title game.
So what about those ACC opponents?
I certainly maintain that the competition has not been all that great. Not terrible but these aren’t great teams Pitt is beating. Here’s the thing, though. Pundits can’t have it both ways. Terrible takes, like this one from Pat Forde, explicitly calling Pitt a bad team look ridiculous because they don’t consider the level of competition a team has played or that a team can get better as the year goes on. And it’s not as if the entire country has been down on these ACC teams, either. Voters ranked Syracuse at No. 13 last week in the Top 25. Duke was previously ranked. Virginia was ranked No. 25 when Pitt beat them on the road. You can’t have it both ways. Duke and Virginia have been since bounced from the polls but if we’re in the business of insisting Pitt isn’t beating anyone, then why is Syracuse incredulously ranked No. 13?
And beyond the ACC teams, there’s also the game at Notre Dame where Pitt led most of the way and were this close to shocking the nation. Make no mistake — this is a pretty decent team, folks.
This team has some very real flaws, don’t get me wrong. The passing game has a lot to work on and the pass defense, while certainly improved, still struggles at times. But the silliness of declaring Pitt a bad team merely in a good position based on some ugly games against good teams early in the season should be over. This may not be a great team but they are legitimately pretty good and, in my opinion, deserve to be ranked.
This thing isn’t over yet, folks. The Panthers could win the conference without winning another game if a few things happen. But if Pitt is even thinking about resting yet, now isn’t the time. Pitt now will travel to face a suddenly dangerous .500 Wake Forest team that just knocked off NC State and then will have to travel to play Miami. Insisting that Pitt has this wrapped up would be beyond short-sighted.
The good news? Based on how the players showed up against Virginia and Virginia Tech in consecutive weeks, I’ve got the feeling that both teams will get their full attention.
Now, let’s go out and win a Division.