Pitt hosted UMass at Heinz Field for its 2021 season opener on Saturday, and the result was a 51-7 beatdown. As expected, the vaunted Panthers defense led the way, stifling UMass all day long, but Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and the offense struggled a bit early on before eventually finding their rhythm.
The Panthers saw their first two drives cut short by penalty issues, a few blown-up plays and an A.J. Davis fumble. However, the Davis fumble prompted his benching and saw Israel Abanikanda enter the game. That brought balance to the offense, as Abanikanda and Pickett ran the ball well, opening up passing opportunities. Pickett would take advantage of that, connecting on passes to Pitt tight end Lucas Krull for a first down and a five-yard touchdown to cap off the drive and put Pitt up 7-0 after a made extra point by Sam Scarton.
UMass quarterback Tyler Lytle and the Minutemen offense were simply outclassed by the Panthers defense, which held them to three-and-outs throughout the first quarter. The disparity between the two units was especially apparent toward the end of the opening frame, when Pitt linebacker Phil Campbell sacked Lytle to bring up 4th-and-13 and a punt by UMass punter George Georgopoulos.
The Panthers would respond with a 47-yard bomb from Pickett to Pitt receiver Jaylon Barden on the first play of the following drive that placed them just outside the red zone. A nine-yard pass from Pickett to Taysir Mack would put Pitt in the red zone, and three plays later, Pickett would dump the ball off to Jordan Addison, who would run it in from 12 yards out for his first touchdown of the season. However, Pitt would only take a 13-0 lead, as Scarton missed the extra-point attempt.
The Pitt offense would stall on the next two drives, going for it on 4th-and-1 with a handoff to Rodney Hammond and failing to convert and then settling for a field goal by Sam Scarton from 35 yards out that would give Pitt a 16-0 lead. During that span, there was a brief injury scare concerning Pickett, who got decked by UMass linebacker Gerrell Johnson. Johnson was called for targeting and ejected, and after taking a play off, Pickett would return.
All the while, the Pitt defense continued to dominate the UMass offense, refusing to concede a conversion for a first down until halfway through the second quarter. And after the Minutemen got dominated by the likes of Calijah Kancey and John Petrishen, both of whom came up with sacks in the first half, the Pitt offense would strike again. The team’s final score of the first half would come on an A.J. Davis run from 18 yards out, and that would ultimately put Pitt up 23-0.
The second half would follow the same theme established in the first half, as the Panthers defense halted the Minutemen’s first drive when Erick Hallett stripped UMass receiver Michael Fitzgerald of the ball and recovered the fumble. Pitt would then respond by driving down the field via completions from Pickett to Mack, and Vincent Davis, in at running back for Pitt, would finish off the drive with a nine-yard run into the end zone that provided the Panthers with a 30-0 lead.
On the next drive, Pickett would methodically lead the Pitt offense down the field, relying on short passes to Krull and fellow tight end Gavin Bartholomew as well as decent runs by Vincent Davis. But the drive would be finished by Abanikanda, who ran the ball in from the 12-yard line and was untouched on his trip into the end zone, which made the score 37-0.
The Minutemen threatened for the first time early in the fourth quarter and appeared to score on a pass from Lytle to UMass tight end Josiah Johnson. However, upon further review, it was ruled that Johnson stepped out of bounds before crossing the plane. But with the ball on the 1-yard-line, UMass scored when Lytle, who stands at 6’5”, 225 pounds, barrelled through the line for a touchdown.
Pitt would not wait for its offense to take the field to take it to UMass after the score, as Barden made his second 47-yard play of the game, this time as a return man, running back a kick from the goal line to Pitt’s 47-yard line. Nick Patti would then take over for Pickett at quarterback, and with the short field Barden provided, he would lead Pitt on its seventh scoring drive of the day. That 53-yard drive, which included an impressive completion to Pitt receiver Jared Wayne, would take just 52 seconds to complete, and it would furnish the Panthers with a 44-7 advantage.
UMass would drive deep into Pitt territory again in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers showed a bit of indifference late in the game. However, with the Minutemen set up with a 3rd-and-goal on Pitt’s 8-yard line, Pitt linebacker Wendell Davis would speed through the line untouched and take down Lytle for a loss of 11, killing the drive and forcing a field goal UMass kicker Cameron Carson would miss.
Pitt would switch quarterbacks and running backs again on the resulting drive, as Davis Beville and Daniel Carter entered the game. The two would lead the team down the field once again, this time traversing 80 yards in the process. Beville would find Pitt receiver Jaden Bradley on multiple occasions, and Carter would end the drive by scoring from six yards out. That touchdown would go unanswered, and Pitt would go on to win 51-7.
With Saturday’s lopsided victory, Pitt improved to 1-0 on the season and showed the college football world that its defense had not lost a step, despite losing several players to the professional ranks. In addition, Pickett put on a solid showing, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns on 27-for-37 passing.
Next up fot Pitt is a trip to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on Tennessee in the Johnny Majors Classic. The Volunteers also won their first game of the season in convincing fashion, defeating Bowling Green 38-6 on Thursday. Pitt and Tennessee will kick off next Saturday at noon ET.