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Sour Peach Doesn’t Spoil Pitt’s Great Season

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb reflects on Pittsburgh's 2021 season.

ACC programs are tired of morale bowl victories. But how else can one be positive heading into 2022 when the conference is 1-4 in bowl games?

That’s especially true when those four defeats are by an average of 18.5 points.

Pitt is the latest ACC program who earned a morale victory in a bowl game this week. The Panthers probably should have beaten the Michigan State Spartans in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, but instead, gave up 21-fourth quarter points to lose 31-21.

Michigan State capped off the victory with a 78-yard pick-six from Cal Haladay with 22 seconds remaining.

While it’s a disappointing end to a special season for Pitt, the sourness of the Peach Bowl shouldn’t spoil what the Panthers accomplished this season. And despite the departure of Kenny Pickett, there’s plenty to look forward to at Pitt in 2022.

Playing without Pickett on Thursday, Nick Patti started behind center for Pitt. Patti rushed for a 16-yard touchdown in the first quarter, but injured his collarbone while lunging for the pylon. So third-string quarterback Davis Beville, who had four pass attempts coming into the postseason, played more than three quarters of the Peach Bowl.

Beville threw the pivotal pick-six in the final minutes that sealed the victory for Michigan State, but all things considered, Beville played well, completing 14 of 18 passes for 149 yards with a touchdown to go with the interception.

It was the Pitt defense and offense around Beville that faltered in the second half. The Panthers gave up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for the first time all season. Michigan State outgained Pitt in the final stanza 140-56.

The ball-control offense the Panthers deployed all year long was nonexistent in the Peach Bowl. After taking an 11-point lead with a fumble returned for a touchdown in the first minute of the third quarter, Pitt had three three-and-outs and another drive that picked up just one first down.

The Panthers didn’t have a single drive that lasted at least three minutes in the second half. With the lead in the second half, Beville dropped back to pass six times and was sacked half the time.

“We didn’t do a great job of protecting in the third quarter,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi after the loss. “But Davis [Beville] did a great job. As good as you expect a third team quarterback to do.”

Such is life for a program like Pitt without its start quarterback. But for those who think the Peach Bowl was a preview of what the Panthers will be next season when Pickett is in the NFL, think again. Former USC quarterback Kedon Slovis announced last week he will be transferring to Pitt and is favored to be the team’s starter next year.

A former 3-star prospect, Slovis threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. He couldn’t find a rhythm during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and struggled due to injuries on offense and the firing of Clay Helton this season. But Slovis has the talent to be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC next year.

Pitt also has its best offensive weapon returning next season – wide receiver Jordan Addison. In retrospect, the Panthers probably should have tried harder to get Addison the ball in the second half of the Peach Bowl, but as is, he posted seven catches for 114 yards and a 28-yard run in the bowl game.

Addison’s 28-yard run was Pitt’s only first down in the third quarter.

“Jordan Addison is an outstanding player,” said Narduzzi. “I don’t know what hasn’t been said about him. Winning a Biletnikoff. Wish he’d had more than seven catches. Probably should have got him the ball more, just couldn’t get it to him enough.”

Pitt will return a majority of its offensive line, and the Panthers’ top playmakers on defense are underclassmen as well. If Slovis can quickly grasp the playbook, there’s little to suggest that Pitt won’t remain a contender in the weak ACC Coastal.

The Panthers won 11 games in 2021 for the first time in 40 years. The morale victory in the Peach Bowl instead of reaching 12 wins for the first time since 1976 hurts right now, but don’t expect Pitt to go another 40 years before winning 11 games again.

Pitt might be just beginning a special run under Narduzzi.