PITTSBURGH (AP) – When Kenny Pickett walks through the tunnel and onto the Heinz Field lawn on Saturday, it will be his last time as a college quarterback.
Really this time.
A year ago, the Pittsburgh star went through the Senior Day celebrations, throwing 404 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Virginia Tech before appearing to wave goodbye.
Call it one of the best play-action fake – and best business decisions – college athlete in recent history. Pickett eventually decided to return for one final run, a decision that helped him be a Darkhorse contestant for the Heisman Trophy, rewrite a significant part of the Pitt record book, and place the Panthers in 20th place (8- 2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) to the top of their second Coastal Division title in four years.
It would be a fitting bookend for a player who made his debut in the 2017 regular season finale as a true newbie when he staged a surprise over the then undefeated Miami. This characteristic moment set the stage for three years of solid, but not always spectacular, play.
Everything has changed in the past three months as player head coach Pat Narduzzi insisted he doesn’t have to be “Kenny Perfect” it has largely become just that. He’s thrown 32 touchdowns against four interceptions and is well on his way to adding the most yards in a season and the most touchdown passes in a season to the rapidly growing collection of school records that already bear his name.
Not that he particularly cares. Yes, the hype is nice. It just isn’t all. This is, after all, the same player who was part of a leadership group that this season chose to put the word “team” on the back of all training jerseys to emphasize the importance of unity.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Pickett. “Beginning (with this Miami excitement) … I’m grateful for the opportunity to finish as coast champions, but we have to take it and win.”
Virginia (6-4, 4-2) has its own plans to earn its second trip to the ACC title game since 2019. The Cavaliers can still win the Coastal by pissing off the Panthers and then beating Virginia Tech two days after Thanksgiving.
“That is the expectation I have for our program is that we will be coast champions every year,” said Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall. “We were the defending champions at COVID. We want to come out of this again. We have every chance of doing this with two remaining Coastal games. “
It is uncertain whether Virginia has a chance to win the Coastal with quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
Armstrong continued last week’s loss to then No. 7 Notre Dame with a rib injury and it is unclear whether he will be available against the Panthers. Jay Woolfork threw two picks and failed to lead the Cavaliers into the end zone against the Fighting Irish.
Those who are behind the middle have to deal with a passport frenzy that is one of the best in the country. The Panthers are nationally at sacks per game (3.6), while only 11 teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks per game than the Cavaliers (3.3).
“(Pitt has) really active front players who are taught to be aggressive and somehow, I would say, attack first and then react in terms of their mindset,” said Mendenhall. “You are doing a really good job.”
If the Panthers make it on Saturday, there will be a trip to Charlotte on the first Saturday in December.
“There is no pressure,” said Narduzzi. “Again, I’ve said that before. Pressure comes and stress comes when you are unprepared. We will be prepared. Our children are being prepared. I think they are excited. “
Perhaps the biggest difference between Armstrong and Woolfolk is the speed at which they go through their advances in passing games. Armstrong tossed a touchdown pass to his fourth option for one game earlier this year, while Woolfolk was sacked seven times by Notre Dame.
“A lot of it was just a growing pain in terms of timing to see it fast enough,” Mendenhall said this week of the high total sack count. “It just took him a little longer, like any of us, to see, read, and respond.”
AWAY FOR A LONG TIME
This game will be Virginia’s first game against ACC since the Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech 48-40 on October 23, and recent results have not been good. They let in 734 yards in a 66-49 loss at No. 14 BYU and never really threatened Notre Dame.
The return to conference play – and the stakes that each game represents – shouldn’t make it difficult for Virginia to focus again.
“I don’t think two games are more meaningful for a season and for our team than these two with the impact that a coastal championship, a state championship and all that comes after the results of these games is two,” said Mendenhall.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. of Virginia contributed to this report.
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