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Pickett Dazzles at UT for Pitt

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb on Kenny Pickett's performance in Neyland Stadium.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett has come a long way.

During his first year as a starter in 2018, he ranked second-to-last among qualifying ACC quarterbacks with a 6.4 yards per attempt average. Pitt won the ACC Coastal division that year but behind a power running game, not Pickett.

On Saturday, Pickett led Pitt to its biggest non-conference win in at least five years.

Pickett’s transformation didn’t happen overnight. He threw for 3,000 yards in his second season as a starter in 2019. During the abbreviated COVID-19 2020 season, Pickett saw his averages of yards per game, touchdowns per game and yards per pass all increase.

But after Saturday’s performance, he should officially be placed in the tier of elite ACC quarterbacks. Pickett went 24 of 36 for 285 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee. He led Pitt back from an early 10-point deficit, and then whenever the Volunteers appeared ready to turn the game in their favor during the second half, Pickett had an answer.

Pickett was particularly good on third down. He was 8-for-12 throwing on the pivotal down for 85 yards. Pitt converted six of those 12 plays into first downs and scored two touchdowns as well.

On Pitt’s two fourth-down attempts, the senior signal caller scrambled for a first down and scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line.

Thanks to that clutch performance, the Panthers overcame their leaky defense. Pitt gave up seven plays of at least 15 yards in the final 20 minutes. Tennessee scored twice during that stretch but was never able to tie the game in large part because Pickett and the Panthers offense kept making plays.

After Pitt took the lead 20-13, Tennessee never strung together consecutive scores. In the second half, the contest felt close, but the Volunteers never pulled within fewer than seven points.

Pickett’s 1-yard dive into the end zone extended Pitt’s lead to 14 at the 4:49 mark of the third quarter. After Tennessee answered with a touchdown, Pickett threw another touchdown pass to push the lead back to two scores.

Tennessee posted back-to-back scores in the first quarter, but that was helped by a Pitt special teams mistake. The Volunteers blocked a Pitt punt and recovered the loose ball at the Panthers 2-yard line. Tennessee scored quickly to take an early lead and added a field goal before the quarter ended.

But that didn’t phase Pickett. He looked as confident as ever, leading Pitt on five touchdown drives over the last three quarters.

When Tennessee wouldn’t go away, the game felt a little like Pitt contests from year’s past. Last season, Pitt erased a 10-point deficit to take a late lead against NC State only to give up a touchdown in the final 30 seconds and lose by one.

In 2016, the Panthers appeared on their way to beating No. 22 North Carolina when they led by 13 with 10 minutes left. Instead, Mitch Trubisky orchestrated two touchdown drives to give the Tar Heels a one-point win.

But Saturday, Pitt possessed the NFL prospect quarterback, and he changed the narrative.

Pitt’s victory against Tennessee was its first against a Power 5 opponent on the road since 2012. It also ended a 0-7 streak against non-conference Power 5 opponents since 2016.

Saturday’s win gives Pitt a very realistic opportunity to start this season 4-0, which Pitt hasn’t done since 2000. The Panthers are only halfway to that mark, but Pitt plays two non-Power 5 opponents next -- Western Michigan and New Hampshire.

Pickett has thrown for at least 270 yards in each of the first two games to begin 2021. He’ll only need 58 yards next week to accomplish another great feat -- moving ahead of Dan Marino for second place on Pitt’s all-time passing yards list.