PITTSBURGH (AP) — When Kenny Pickett walks through the tunnel and out onto the Heinz Field turf on Saturday, it will be the last time as a college quarterback.
For real this time.
A year ago, the Pittsburgh star went through the “Senior Day” festivities and threw for 404 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Virginia Tech before seeming to wave good-bye.
Call it one of the best play-action fakes — and best business decisions — by a college athlete in recent history. Pickett ultimately opted to return for one last run, a decision that helped make him a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, rewrite a significant portion of the Pitt record book, and propelled the 20th-ranked Panthers (8-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) to the cusp of their second Coastal Division title in four years.
It'd be a fitting bookend for a player who made his initial splash as a true freshman in the 2017 regular-season finale, when he orchestrated an upset of then-unbeaten Miami. That signature moment set the stage for three years of solid but not always spectacular play.
Over the last three months, everything has changed as the player head coach Pat Narduzzi stressed didn't have to be “Kenny Perfect” has largely become just that. He's thrown 32 touchdowns against four interceptions and is on pace to add most yards passing in a season and most touchdown passes in a season to the rapidly growing trove of school records already bearing his name.
Not that he particularly cares. Yes, the hype is nice. It's just not everything. This is the same player, after all, who was part of a leadership group that opted to put the word “team” on the back of everyone's practice jerseys this season to emphasize the importance of unity.
“It’s been a wild ride," Pickett said. "Starting it (with that upset of Miami) ... I’m grateful for the opportunity to finish as Coastal champion, but we need to take it and go win.”
Virginia (6-4, 4-2) has its own designs on earning its second trip to the ACC title game since 2019. The Cavaliers can still win the Coastal by upsetting the Panthers and then beating Virginia Tech two days after Thanksgiving.
“That’s the expectation that I have for our program, is that we’re the Coastal champion every year,” Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We were the defending champion going into COVID. Coming out of it we want to repeat. We have every chance to do that with two Coastal games remaining.”
Whether Virginia will have a chance to win the Coastal with quarterback Brennan Armstrong is uncertain.
Armstrong sat out last week's loss to then-No. 7 Notre Dame with a rib injury and it's unclear whether he will be available against the Panthers. Jay Woolfork threw two picks and failed to lead the Cavaliers to the end zone against the Fighting Irish.
Whoever is behind center will have to deal with a pass rush that's among the best in the country. The Panthers are third nationally in sacks per game (3.6), while only 11 teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks per game than the Cavaliers (3.3).
“(Pitt has) really active front players that are taught to be aggressive and kind of, I would say, attack first and react second in terms of their mindset,” Mendenhall said. “They do a really nice job.”
If the Panthers can do it on Saturday, a trip to Charlotte on the first Saturday in December awaits.
“There’s no pressure,” Narduzzi said. “Again, I’ve said this before. Pressure comes and stress comes when you are unprepared. We’ll be prepared. Our kids will be prepared. I think they’re excited.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Armstrong and Woolfolk is the speed at which they go through their progressions on pass plays. Armstrong threw a touchdown pass earlier this year to his fourth option on a play, while Woolfolk was sacked seven times by Notre Dame.
“A lot of that was just growing pains in terms of the timing, seeing it quickly enough,” Mendenhall said this week of the high sack total. “It was just taking him a little longer, like it would any of us, to see, read and react.”
LONG TIME AWAY
This game will be Virginia's first against ACC competition since the Cavaliers beat Georgia Tech 48-40 on Oct. 23, and the recent results have not been good. They allowed 734 yards in a 66-49 loss at No. 14 BYU and never really threatened Notre Dame.
The return to conference play — and the stakes each game represents — should not make it difficult for Virginia to regain focus.
“I don’t think there’s a chance for two games to be more meaningful for a season and to our team than these two with the implications, which is a Coastal championship, a state championship, then anything that would come after the results of these two,” Mendenhall said.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Virginia contributed to this report.
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