Kenny Pickett is well-versed in how it goes when you play for Pittsburgh. You flirt with great expectations. You pull off an unlikely win or two. Then when things get tight, things tend to fall apart.
Maybe not anymore. At least not this year. Not for the Panthers. And certainly not for their fifth-year senior quarterback, the one whose Heisman Trophy campaign is picking up momentum with every passing week.
Brilliant with his arm and gutsy with his legs, Pickett guided No. 23 Pitt to a decisive 27-17 win over flailing Clemson on Saturday, giving his burgeoning Heisman campaign a serious jolt and stamping the Panthers (6-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) as the runaway favorites in the Coastal Division and maybe the entire league.
Heady territory for a player whose two previous meetings with the Tigers had ended ignominiously. He threw for 8 — yes, 8 — yards in a loss in the 2018 ACC title game and was picked off four times in a blowout defeat last fall in Death Valley.
Given one more shot at Clemson — a shot he opted to take after deciding last December to return to Pitt for one more season rather than enter the NFL draft — Pickett rarely missed. He completed 25 of 39 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns against the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense and converted a pair of third-downs on the game-clinching drive with two gritty runs for the marker.
“I think it’s really, you know, a player-led team,” Pickett said. “And now that we’re at that point, you know, we’re playing to win. We’re not playing to not lose. I think that’s a huge difference.”
One that was on full display after Clemson (4-3, 3-2) pulled within 10 points on D.J. Uiagalelei’s 6-yard touchdown run with 7:56 to go.
The Tigers never got the ball back. Pitt ran the game’s final 15 plays, the last three kneel-downs by Pickett that set off a raucous celebration in front of an announced Heinz Field crowd of over 60,000.
“They kicked our butts, it’s as simple as that,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
The sloppy Tigers certainly helped.
Uiagalelei threw a pair of interceptions, including a baffling shovel pass right into the stomach of Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis that he returned 50 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter for a 21-7 lead.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Dennis, who joked he was happy he simply made it to the end zone without falling after going splat during an interception return during training camp.
A month after a stunning home overtime loss to Western Michigan that gave off the familiar “same old Pitt” vibes, the Panthers have responded behind Pickett. The player who led an upset of then No. 2-Miami in the 2017 finale has evolved from scrappy underdog to polished veteran.
“He’s an unbelievable football player,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said of Pickett, who set a school record for career completions on his 23-yard touchdown to Jordan Addison in the second quarter that tied the game. “Again, we lean on Kenny. We’re going to put the ball in his hands. We ride with Kenny.”
While the Panthers are set at quarterback, the Tigers are not.
Uiagalelei passed for just 128 yards and two picks and was briefly benched in favor of backup Taisu Phommachanh in the third quarter. Phommachanh failed to provide much of a spark, completing just 3 of 7 passes for 23 yards before Uiagalelei returned midway through the fourth with Clemson down by 17.
Asked if there’s now an open competition at the position, Swinney nodded. Then again, it’s hardly the only spot up for grabs with Clemson assured of its first three-loss season since 2014.
“I think everything is under evaluation at this point,” Swinney said. “We’re 4-3.”
Clemson: The Tigers will likely see their long run atop the Atlantic Division end. They are now two games in the loss column behind Wake Forest and N.C. State, which beat the Tigers in overtime last month.
Pitt: The Panthers have struggled to deal with limited bouts of prosperity for most of the last 40 years. They were 3-4 as a ranked team under Narduzzi entering Saturday. They were poised, however, after a sluggish start and will likely find themselves favored in each of their final five games.
Expect the Panthers to climb inside the Top 20 for the first time in Narduzzi’s seven seasons on the job. The Panthers are one of just two teams to beat Clemson twice since 2015. Alabama is the other.
Clemson: Welcomes Florida State (3-4, 2-2) next Saturday.
Pitt: Hosts Miami next Saturday. The Hurricanes have won each of the last three meetings in the series.