Pitt took the field for the first time in 2019 on Saturday, as the team split up and faced off in the Blue-Gold Game before a crowd of 8,797 at Heinz Field. In the game, the Blue team, which was led by Panthers offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and quarterback Kenny Pickett, topped a Gold team led by Panthers safeties coach Cory Sanders by a score of 14-7.
The spring game featured 10-minute quarters, and contact with quarterbacks was limited. But other than that, gameplay went on as usual. Whipple also handed over play-calling duties to Pitt wide receivers coach Chris Beatty, and the playbook was relatively limited.
The first half of the game was a defensive struggle that ended in a scoreless tie, but the offenses came alive in the second frame. Pickett got things started after the break by more than doubling his first-half yardage on a 36-yard pass to tight end Grant Carrigan. The signal-caller then found receiver Tre Tipton for a 13-yard touchdown to open up the scoring with 6:45 left to play in the third quarter.
With the Gold team still unable to muster an answer, Pickett took the field again later in the third and marched the Blue team downfield. Then, with 1:23 left in the quarter, Pickett found Tipton in the corner of the end zone and connected on a 22-yard pass to put the Blue team up 14-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Gold team continued to struggle throughout the final 10 minutes, as redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Patti was picked off by Paris Ford after a ball got tipped. Ford would finish the game as the top defender in the contest with a game-high seven tackles and the day’s only interception.
Incoming freshman quarterback Davis Beville would redeem Patti’s mistake to some extent late in the fourth quarter by tossing an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Will Gragg. However, there would not be enough time left for the Gold team to mount a comeback, and the final score of the 2019 Blue-Gold Game would go in the books as 14-7.
Beville finished as Pitt’s most prolific passer despite dealing with significant pressure and getting sacked three times. When all was said and done, he had completed 13 of his 17 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. However, Pickett went 10-for-14 on the day for 125 yards and two scores, and his performance caught the eye of Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, who praised him after the game.
”There were some changes that Coach Whipple wanted to make just as far as [Pickett's] fundamentals,” Narduzzi said of his starting quarterback. “The ball is coming a lot quicker out of his hands. I think that’s the most impressive thing we saw. The ball is being thrown on time and before the receivers are out of their break, the ball’s coming. That will make our offensive line better.”
The coach was also impressed with what he saw from Ford on the defensive side of the ball, as he named him Pitt’s starter at boundary safety in response to his performance.
“Right now, Paris Ford’s the starter at boundary safety coming out of spring ball,” Narduzzi said of his top defender. “Period.”
All in all, the spring game served as an exhibition of Whipple’s changes to Pitt’s offense, and the difference between last season’s run-first approach that made stars of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall and this year’s pass-heavy approach was night and day. The game was also something of a proving ground for the likes of Paris Ford and Tre Tipton, both of whom are looking to slide into larger roles, and an introduction to Beville, a former four-star recruit who looks to have a bright future ahead of him at Pitt.
However, one concerning aspect of the game was the apparent lack of a rushing attack, as the two teams finished with minus-32 yards. Part of that was due to sacks counting against the rushing total, but factoring those losses out, Pitt running backs V'Lique Carter, A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley combined for just 11 yards on 19 rushing attempts.
So if there's a takeaway to be had from this year's spring game, which amounts to a scrimmage, it's that the Pitt passing game looks promising but the running game will be something to keep an eye on when training camp gets underway in a few months.