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Defense Fuels Pitt to First ACC Title

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb recaps Pittsburgh's ACC Championship Game win over Wake Forest.

With 35 points, the first quarter of the 2021 ACC Championship Game unfolded just as all the experts predicted. There was plenty of offense, especially from Wake Forest, who scored touchdowns on all three of its first three possessions.

But then the game quickly changed, especially in the second half. After posting 236 yards in the first quarter, Wake Forest recorded 59 yards in the final 45 minutes, and Pitt scored 31 unanswered points to end the night.

While Pitt’s offense was great, the Panthers defense was better. Not only did Pitt hold Wake Forest to 295 yards, its lowest of the season, the Panthers registered four interceptions, including three which set up Pitt’s three touchdowns in the second half.

Behind that defensive effort, Pitt won its first ACC Championship against Wake Forest, 45-21, at Bank America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday.

As soon as the second quarter began, things started to go badly for the Demon Deacons. Following a three-yard loss and incompletion pass on first and second down, Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman threw his first interception.

It was all downhill from there. On each of their next three drives, the Demon Deacons had negative yardage. Furthermore, after the interception, all six of Wake Forest’s next drives ended in punts, including the team’s first three possessions of the second half.

The Demon Deacons defense kept them in the game, as it also held Pitt to punts on its first three drives of the third quarter. But Hartman’s second interception with under three minutes remaining in the third set up Pitt in Wake Forest territory. It took all of four plays for Pitt to find the end zone and extend its lead to two possessions for the first time.

Hartman continued to struggle, and the Panthers made him pay. Defensive backs AJ Woods and Erick Hallett intercepted Hartman passes on each of the next two Wake Forest drives. Woods returned his interception 73 yards to the Demon Deacons 3-yard line. Pitt needed three plays but punched the ball in for another score. Then, Hallett, who intercepted Hartman twice Saturday, recorded a pick-six on the next drive.

In addition to the three interceptions, Hartman completed just six of his 21 passes for 48 yards in the second half. Wake Forest lifted Hartman from the game midway through the fourth quarter.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett had no big-game jitters. He ran for a 58-yard touchdown on the opening possession of the game. The long run was somewhat controversial, as it appeared Pickett intended to begin to slide, which led to several Wake Forest defenders to give up on the play. Then instead of sliding, Pickett continued running to the end zone.

Pickett dazzled through the air as well with 253 passing yards and two touchdowns. With the two scores, Pickett broke the Pitt and ACC record for most passing touchdowns in a single season with 42.

His favorite target was once again Jordan Addison, who led the Panthers with eight receptions and 126 receiving yards. He also had a 39-yard punt return, which set up a Pitt touchdown in the second quarter.

It’s hard to beat Pitt when its offense is humming as it did most of Saturday night. But trying to keep up with the Panthers scoring ability while having a minus-4 turnover differential is nearly impossible, especially when three of those turnovers lead to touchdowns.

With the victory, Pitt won the first championship game in program history and first conference title since 2004. But that championship was a shared title in the Big East. Before Saturday, Pitt had never won an outright conference title.

Despite the loss, Wake Forest still had a tremendous season in the ACC. The Demon Deacons reached the ACC Championship for the first time since 2006 and with a victory in a bowl game, they can match their program record of 11 wins from that season.

But the night belonged to Pitt, and surprisingly, the Panthers defense.