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ACC Spotlight: Pitt vs Louisville

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews Pittsburgh's game with Louisville.

Heading into this convoluted season, Louisville, along with North Carolina, emerged as a popular dark horse in the ACC. If the Cardinals don’t win this Saturday, though, it may very well be their opponent becoming one of the biggest threats to unseat Clemson or Notre Dame atop the conference.

Pitt enters the third week of the new ACC slate 2-0, coming off a home victory against rival Syracuse. The Orange have looked dismal in their first two games, so that’s not all that much of an impressive win, and Pitt’s other victory came against Austin Peay.

But the Panthers match up well versus the Cardinals on paper, giving them a great chance to make a statement for the rest of the conference in a showdown between two ranked teams that wasn’t on the original schedule.

The keys to Pitt winning a third straight game to begin the season for the first time since 2014 lies in quarterback Kenny Pickett and its defensive front. Pickett has started the year strongly, throwing for 492 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

Pickett still must prove he can push the ball down field against ACC competition. He averaged 13.9 yards per pass against Austin Peay versus only 6.0 yards per attempt versus Syracuse. But Pickett posted a completion percentage of at least 69 percent in both games, and two of his three touchdown passes through two weeks came against the Orange.

The Cardinals defense allowed 10.8 yards per pass and three touchdowns against Miami last week. In the loss at home, Louisville also yielded 558 yards and 47 points, including two 75-yard scores.

Miami moved the ball against Louisville on the ground and through the air, which Pitt would love to do this Saturday. Fundamentally, Pitt is still a program that wants to emphasize the running game, but that’s the part of the Panthers offense that has really struggled since the beginning of 2019. Against Syracuse last week, Pitt averaged under 3.0 yards per carry.

More than likely, it will be up to Pickett to move the Panthers this Saturday. He has yet to prove he can carry the offense against a good ACC team, but this matchup is in his favor.

If Pitt can accumulate yards similar to the way Miami did in Kentucky last weekend, then Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham will have to keep pace while dealing with the Panthers defensive line. Pitt leads the ACC with 10.0 sacks this year, 7.0 of which came last Saturday versus Syracuse.

Pitt will have a more difficult time getting to Cunningham than Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito, but Miami, who probably doesn’t have as good of a front as Pitt, recorded 3.0 sacks versus Louisville.

Quick decisive passes to junior wide receiver Tutu Atwell could be vital to Cunningham avoiding the Pitt pass rush. While Atwell averages just 12.8 yards per catch, he leads the team with 15 receptions and 192 yards this season.

Senior Dez Fitzpatrick and sophomore Braden Smith are the other two Louisville receivers with at least five receptions, and they both are accumulating more than 16 yards per catch. Whether they can have an impact, though, seemingly depends upon how good the Louisville offensive line can protect Cunningham.

Louisville can still have a good season if it loses at Heinz Field on Saturday, but a 1-2 start, including 0-2 in the ACC, heading into a bye week is not what the Cardinals expected after many picked them to finish second in the ACC Atlantic very early in the offseason. Louisville still must visit Notre Dame on Oct. 17 as well.

The schedule gets easier after that mostly because Louisville will avoid Clemson this season, but even still, an 0-2 hole may be too big to have a realistic chance of threatening the ACC elites. The opposite will be true for Pitt. The Panthers finishing September undefeated in the ACC will turn them into a team to watch the remainder of the year.

Prediction: Pitt 34, Louisville 28