No team embodies ACC Coastal Division volatility like Pittsburgh.
The Panthers entered last week 12th among the conference’s 14 teams in scoring at 24.3 points per game. They’d hung 44 on Syracuse, but one touchdown came on defense and another in overtime.
So what happened Saturday? Against the league’s No. 4 scoring defense? Pitt surged into division contention with a poignant 54-45 comeback victory over Duke.
Further confounding those who would dare handicap the incurably fickle Coastal, the Panthers unveiled true freshman tailback V’Lique Carter. Recruited as defensive back, all Carter did in his college football debut was run for 137 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries.
Pitt (4-4, 3-1 ACC) now stands even in the loss column with fellow division frontrunners Virginia (6-2, 4-1) and Virginia Tech (4-3, 3-1). And lo and behold, check out the Panthers’ next two games: at the Cavaliers on Friday and home versus the Hokies a week from Saturday.
Pitt’s emergence Saturday came hours after a gunman killed 11 and wounded six at a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
“Our kids were affected by it,” Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “Saw kids on their phones in our pregame meals, talking about it. My prayers, this football team’s prayers, our family’s prayers go out to the victims, to the SWAT Team, the police officers of Pittsburgh, to all the families that are affected by that. …
“My (own) kids were about a half-mile from there at the time. First thing I was doing before the game is texting my kids, to make sure they stay in the house, don’t leave. I’m sure a lot of our players were worried about their families, how close they were to it.”
That tragic backdrop makes Pitt’s win all the more impressive. The Panthers trailed by 10 late in the third quarter, scored 12 points in the final 2:33 and rushed for 484 yards, averaging 9.3 yards per carry.
The last, and only, time Pitt ran for more yards was 1975 against Army. Tony Dorsett, the ’76 Heisman Trophy winner, accounted for 268 of the Panthers’ 530 rushing yards that afternoon at Michie Stadium.
Myriad sources contributed to Saturday’s eruption. Starting tailback Qadree Ollison ran for 149 yards, quarterback Kenny Pickett 76, receiver Maurice Ffrench 69 and reserve tailback Darrin Hall 53.
But the revelation was Carter, on the field thanks only because of the new NCAA rule that permits athletes to play in up to four games and still redshirt. Narduzzi described Carter as “OK on defense,” but “explosive” as the scout-team tailback.
A Pittsburgh reporter asked Narduzzi if the position switch is permanent.
“What do you think?” Narduzzi said. “We’ll go recruit another DB.”
Narduzzi was cryptic at his weekly Monday presser on whether Carter would play again Friday at Virginia, but it’s difficult to imagine he won’t, not with first place in the Coastal at stake.
“Was he lucky?” Narduzzi said. “Is he good? I don’t know. Maybe he just got lucky that day. … Maybe just set up perfectly for him. I think some other guys can do the same thing.”
Pitt is unlikely to bulldoze Virginia the way it did Duke. The Cavaliers limited their last two opponents, Duke and North Carolina, to a combined 124 yards on 49 carries (2.5 per attempt).
The Tar Heels were averaging 5.1 yards per rush prior to Saturday. They managed 3.0 against a Cavaliers defense anchored by safety Juan Thornhill, linebackers Chris Peace and Rob Snyder and lineman Eli Hanback.
“It’s pretty fun once you see (opponents) start going straight to their pass game and losing all hope in the run game,” Snyder said. “It makes it a lot easier on the linebackers to just drop back (into pass coverage) rather than thinking you have to play run every play.”
Virginia ranks second among ACC teams in scoring defense at 18.8 points per game. Conversely, Pitt is 11th at 32.6.
Suffice to say that irritates Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Cincinnati, Miami of Ohio and Rhode Island.
“I don’t know if anybody plays defense anymore,” he said Saturday.
The Cavaliers do, and that’s why they’re leading the Coastal Division.
Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.