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Pitt dominates second half to claim ACC Coastal Division with 34-13 win over Wake Forest

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt rebounded from a pretty sluggish first half against Wake Forest today to dominate the second half for a 34-13 win. The victory, of course, gives the Panthers their first ACC Coastal Division title, sending them to the conference championship game against Clemson.

If you watched the first half, it looked like the Panthers might need to defeat Miami next week to claim the Division title. Pitt could not run the ball and didn’t generate much offense. A blocked extra point contributed to the woes and the Panthers simply could not get much going. That all changed in the second half, though.

Trailing 10-6 in the third quarter, Pitt capped an 11-play drive with a four-yard touchdown pass by Kenny Pickett to Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Shortly after that, Pickett would add another touchdown pass to a streaking Taysir Mack for a 63-yard score. That helped the Panthers take control of the game and a pair of 4th quarter touchdowns (including a third Pickett touchdown pass) clinched the victory.

If you noticed anything in that paragraph, it was probably the word Pickett. And that’s because the Panthers’ quarterback was sharp as a tack today. Pickett not only got his first 200-yard game of the year today, he had a career-high 316 yards on 23-30 passing, including the three touchdowns.

Everyone figured Pitt would load up on the ground against Wake Forest. As I wrote in the preview, the Demon Deacons have been terrible against the run and it was assumed (at least by me) that running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall would have a field day. But those two combined for only 96 yards and were shut down for the most part.

If you’re Wake Forest, you couldn’t ask for anything more than that and they got exactly what they wanted. They insisted Pickett beat them with his arm and the only problem for them was that he did. Pickett routinely made throws and, while there were a few duds in there, he was flat out incredible. I don’t want Pitt fans to only dismiss that as merely a big game. Players have big games all the time. But for Pickett to have this kind of a game on this stage, is what was extremely impressive. No, he didn’t win the game on his own but he was really, really (really) good.

In case you’ve missed it, Pickett has been playing mostly mistake-free in the second half of the season. I hadn’t even realized it but Pickett hasn’t thrown an interception in his last five games against seven touchdowns (six passing, one rushing). No, Pitt hasn’t thrown for much. And no, aside from today, he’s not been a major passing threat. But he has kept Pitt in games and given them a chance to win.

What we’re seeing is that the running game has been so dominant that it presents opportunities for the passing game. As long as you’re competent there, there will be chances to make plays. Pickett’s day probably does not happen if the running game doesn’t dominate the way they have. And you credit him, by the way, because he still has to make throws, which he did.

I’m still not sure what to expect from Pickett going forward. Was today an aberration or merely the product of what he can do now because the run game is so darn good and defenses have no choice but to account for the run? We’ll have to see but hopefully he can take this game and build on it. The running game is not going to be lights out the rest of the way and, at some point, he’s going to need to make more throws. Today’s game gives some measure of confidence that possibly he can do that on a more consistent basis.

It obviously wasn’t all Pickett today. Just as responsible for today’s win was the defense. The Pitt defense continues to show that they are improving with another great day, giving up only 13 points. I fear that it’s forgotten by now but linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu made a fantastic play at the goal line to keep Wake Forest to a field goal when it was a close game. That was the story all day, really. Guys just made plays. Pitt got two interceptions but there were a lot of plays like Idowu’s that contributed, too.

13 points today. 22 last week against Virginia Tech. 13 against Virginia before that. Two weeks before that, 19 to Notre Dame. The defense has really gotten it done in the second half of the season and that gives you encouragement for next season and, more importantly, Narduzzi’s system as a whole.

Nod (and by nod, I mean anything but that) to the refs, too, for what I thought was a pretty embarrassing performance. Pitt had ten penalties with most coming in the first half. Wake didn’t pick up their first (and only penalty of the game) until the second half, and even that one was only called after a Pitt player was nearly decapitated. I don’t know what to make of that but I do know I wasn’t impressed with the refs at all. Pitt shot itself in the foot several times with bad penalties, no doubt about it. But two of the holding penalties were really questionable and even the broadcast crew seemed puzzled by one. And I also didn’t like how they flagged a player for complaining after one of those because, well, the call looked bad. To pile on a player in that situation is just a little over the top and it’s even worse when you don’t call anything on the other team.

There were things that have been called against Wake Forest, too. Receivers pushed off on Pitt defenders at least two times before making catches that I saw and Maurice Ffrench complained to an official on one occasion on a deep ball when, presumably, he was interfered with. That says nothing to the fact that the chance that one team will commit ten times as many penalties as the other is just kind of far-fetched, anyway.

I’m not a conspiracy guy and don’t think there’s any secret plot to keep Pitt from reaching (or even winning) the ACC title game. That’s just stuff that I don’t believe exists, even if it’s a in a conference’s best interests. But I hope the crew in the title game is a little more even-handed. Today was a mess, in my opinion. I’m perfectly content in the realization that Pitt is probably not as good as Clemson. But if they’re facing a 10-1 disadvantage on penalties and what not, well, they won’t stand a chance.

So what’s next? Well, Pitt will play Miami in the regular season finale and I’m interested to see how they approach that game. Obviously, you want to come out of it healthy. But I am not expecting much of a relaxed feeling. You definitely want the team to be prepared for Clemson but, as I’ve said before, every win matters to coaches. And Pitt is also playing for bowl positioning, too. You lose to Miami, you lose to Clemson, all of a sudden, you’re barely .500 at 7-6 and not terribly impressive.

Pitt doesn’t technically need to beat the Hurricanes to play in the ACC title game but it’s still a very important one in terms of perception. You win that game and you’re probably ranked (assuming they aren’t ranked this week). That gets you a little more credibility in the minds of bowls and can be important for positioning.

For now, though, enjoy this one. It’s been a long time coming and it’s great to see Pitt with this type of opportunity. H2P.

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