Pitt went down to Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday for a noon showdown with Georgia Tech, and the Panthers overwhelmed the Yellow Jackets in just about every phase of the game, ultimately coming away with a convincing 52-21 victory in its ACC opener.
Early on, Georgia Tech made a concerted effort to pressure Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett and disrupt the rhythm of the Pitt offense. And while the Yellow Jackets succeeded in stifling the Panthers’ first drive, their offense was not up to the task of capitalizing on that advantage, as Yellow Jackets quarterback Jeff Sims coughed up the ball after Panthers defensive end Deslin Alexandre tipped a pass into the waiting hands of Panthers linebacker Cam Bright.
On the subsequent drive, the Panthers would work through the pressure applied to them by the Yellow Jackets, with Pickett completing passes to Panthers receivers Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack, and that would establish a theme for the day. However, Pitt’s first scoring drive of the afternoon would be capped off with a nine-yard run into the end zone by Panthers running back Israel Abanikanda.
Georgia Tech would get the ball again, but only briefly. On the second play of the drive, Sims found himself pressured by Panthers defensive end Habbakuk Baldonado and took a hit. But instead of taking the sack, Sims threw up a flimsy prayer that found its way into the arms of Panthers linebacker John Petrishen, and Petrishen ran it back 33 yards for a pick-six that put the Panthers up 14-0 over the Yellow Jackets less than six minutes into the game.
The Yellow Jackets would respond on the next drive. At first, it appeared Jackets running back Jahmyr Gibbs would do the honors, as he took a short pass to the house from more than 50 yards out. But that was called off due to a hold by Jackets receiver Malachi Carter. Three plays later, Sims would find Jackets receiver Nate McCollum wide open downfield with Panthers safety Brandon Hill chasing, and he would hit him with a 44-yard bomb to make it 14-7.
Pitt and Georgia Tech would exchange fruitless drives after that, but Pickett and Addison would get in sync on Pitt’s fourth drive of the day, connecting on a 47-yard bomb of their own and then completing the drive with an 11-yard bullet from Pickett to Addison to increase Pitt’s lead to 14. Two drives later, Pickett would connect with Mack on a 55-yard touchdown pass after Mack blew by Jackets defensive back Tariq Carpenter to get wide open in the opposition's red zone, and Pitt would go up 28-7 less than four minutes into the second quarter.
Jackets running back Dontae Smith would cap off a run-heavy drive after that to bring his team within 14 of the Panthers, but that would be Tech’s last offensive stand of the first half, as Pitt responded with another touchdown run by Abanikanda and a two-play scoring drive in which Pickett connected with Panthers tight end Lucas Krull for 29 yards and then 16 yards for a score to give Pitt a 42-14 advantage, which would remain intact at halftime.
By the end of the first half, Pickett would have 300 yards and three touchdowns through the air on a 17-for-25 passing performance, and Addison, whose first-half accomplishments included a catch made while laying down, would lead all Pitt receivers with 117 yards and a touchdown on six catches. And despite the 14 points conceded, the Pitt defense held up well, too, allowing zero third-down conversions on five attempts and zero fourth-down conversions on two tries.
The second half started with a promising drive for Georgia Tech that would have culminated in a touchdown run by Gibbs if not for a hold by Jackets receiver Kalani Norris. That would back the hosts up significantly, and Petrishen would come up with a tackle for a loss to back them up even more, forcing a field goal that would be shanked from 40 yards out by Jackets kicker Brent Cimaglia.
Pitt wasted no time getting on the board, capitalizing on good field position with passes from Pickett to Panthers running back Vincent Davis and Panthers receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis for first downs. And after reaching the red zone and failing to run it up the gut and over the goal line with Davis, Panthers offensive coordinator Mark Whipple drew up a play-action pass from Pickett to Panthers running back Daniel Carter for a two-yard touchdown score to make it 49-14.
After Pitt’s 11-play, 77-yard scoring drive, Georgia Tech would answer with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive aided by a late hit out of bounds by Panthers defensive back A.J. Woods that would spot the Yellow Jackets 32 yards. Sims would finish that drive off with a pass to Jackets receiver Adonicas Sanders to pull within 28 of the visiting Panthers.
Pitt and Georgia Tech would both see drives stall out after Sanders’ score, but Pitt would kick off the fourth quarter by killing clock and putting points on the board with a 12-play, five-minute drive that ended with a successful 46-yard field goal that Panthers kicker Sam Scarton banked in off the left post. That score would bring Pitt within half a point of its average for the season of 52.5 points per game and provide the Panthers with a 52-21 lead.
Another failed drive by the Yellow Jackets would give the ball back to the Panthers, and the team would appear content to kill clock, as Nick Patti relieved Pickett at quarterback and running plays dominated the final moments of the game. However, Pitt opted for runs rather than kneel-downs in the final minute, and Panthers running back Rodney Hammond brought the team within one yard of another score. But after Panthers center Owen Drexel went down on the play, the Panthers let the clock run out and left Bobby Dodd Stadium with a 52-21 win over the Yellow Jackets.
The victory was Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi’s fourth in a row over Jackets head coach Geoff Collins and his sixth in the seven contests between Pitt and Georgia Tech during his tenure with the program. Pickett finished the day with 389 yards and four touchdowns on a 23-for-36 passing performance, bringing his totals for the 2021 season to 1,731 passing yards and 19 touchdowns in five games with a 72 percent completion rate.
With the win, Pitt improved to 4-1 overall and 1-0 against ACC competition. However, the trip to Atlanta was rough on the team, as multiple Panthers went down with injuries. Many of those were brief in nature and the players returned, but the team will no doubt be looking forward to its upcoming bye, as Habbakuk Baldonado, Tyler Bentley, Keyshon Camp, Phil Campbell, SirVocea Dennis, Owen Drexel, Rodney Hammond and Damarri Mathis were all checked out by the Pitt medical staff at least once during the game. After the week off, Pitt will hit the road again to take on Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg on Oct. 16.