No. 15 Pitt traveled to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to take on No. 16 Wake Forest in the ACC championship game on Saturday night, and the Panthers came out on the right side of the matchup, topping the Demon Deacons by a score of 45-21.
The Panthers got the ball to start the game, and they made quick work of their first drive, polishing off a five-play effort with a 58-yard touchdown run by Pitt signal-caller Kenny Pickett. During that run, Pickett looked set to slide after gaining first-down yardage, and Wake Forest defensive back Nick Andersen let up. But Pickett pulled out of the slide and streaked to the end zone, putting Pitt up 7-0.
The Demon Deacons would respond on their first drive, going 75 yards in 11 plays. With a little help by Pitt defensive back Marquis Williams, who suplexed Wake Forest receiver Taylor Morin and drew a 15-yard penalty, they would reach the end zone when Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman found Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry for a five-yard score.
With the gauntlet thrown down, Pitt would not shy away from the challenge, and on its next drive, the team struck even more quickly than it did on its opening drive. An 18-yard strike to Pitt tight end Lucas Krull gave the Panthers a first down. A 35-yard pass to Pitt receiver Jared Wayne resulted in another. And Pitt running back Rodney Hammond would take home a 22-yard dump-off pass for a 14-7 lead.
On the next drive, Wake Forest would respond, making its way down the field with 12 plays in three minutes. That drive would be capped off by an 11-yard run by Hartman, evening the score at 14-14. Unfortunately, Pitt would run into some trouble after that, as Pickett was taken down by Wake Forest defensive lineman Tyler Williams and came up wincing. Pickett would struggle after that, setting up a miss on a 49-yard kick by Pitt kicker Sam Scarton.
The Demon Deacons would not let up, scoring in a matter of four plays on the following drive. With that said, they were characteristically assisted by the ACC officials, as Pitt defensive back Erick Hallett was called for pass interference after making a play on an errant pass by Hartman and getting run into by Morin. Two plays later, Hartman would find Morin for a 26-yard go-ahead touchdown that would make it 21-14, Demon Deacons.
The next Pitt drive would end in a punt, and the Wake Forest drive after that would be ended by Williams, who picked off Hartman for the game’s first takeaway. Pitt would not capitalize on the opportunity. Instead, a defensive struggle would ensue with neither side able to put points on the board until the 8:21 mark in the second quarter, when Pickett tied the game with a four-yard touchdown strike to Wayne.
Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis would end the next two Wake Forest drives with sacks, and Pitt would eventually put points on the board, driving down the field late in the half and going ahead 24-21 on a 41-yard Scarton kick.
The second half got off to a much slower start than the first, with neither the Panthers nor the Demon Deacons able to score for the majority of the third quarter. However, the Pitt defense would shine late, as Pitt defensive lineman Keyshon Camp came up with a drive-killing sack and Hallett came up with an interception on Wake Forest’s following drive.
Things would come together for the Panthers after that, as Pitt receiver Jordan Addison made a circus catch for a gain of 20 and got his team in the red zone. And one play after that, Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda broke off a 12-yard run and found the end zone to put the Panthers up by a score of 31-21.
Pitt would pad its lead a short time later, as Pitt defensive back A.J. Woods picked off Hartman and returned the ball 73 yards. Three plays later, Abanikanda would punch it in from one yard out to extend the Panthers lead to 38-21 with just under 12 minutes left to play in the game. Hartman would throw another pick on the next drive, and Hallett would return it 19 yards for a score to make it 45-21.
After that, Pitt would be content to run out the clock, and Pickett would come out of the game with the result already secured. And once all was said and done, Pitt would come out ahead of Wake Forest, with the score 45-21, and that would earn Pitt its first ACC championship.
With the win, Pitt improved to 11-2 on the season and likely secured a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. And with a 253-yard, three-touchdown game for Pickett that included a 58-yard touchdown scramble, the Pitt signal-caller also stated his case for the Heisman Trophy on a national stage.