PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kenny Pickett didn't return to Pittsburgh for one last run to launch a dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign. Or to zoom past the likes of Hall of Famer Dan Marino in the school record books. Or to cash in on name, image and likeness deals so he could treat his offensive linemen to weekly feasts.
Don't get Pickett wrong. He's not complaining about the attention he's receiving following an eye-popping first half in which he has thrown 21 touchdowns against one interception while leading the 23rd-ranked Panthers (5-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) into the polls and the early inside track for a spot in the ACC title game.
It's just hype — something Pickett learned to block out long ago.
This is the same player who lead an upset of then-No. 2 Miami in his first collegiate start as a true freshman in 2017, after all. In a way, he's been chasing that giddy moment ever since. The chance to one-up it finally arrives Saturday when Pitt hosts Clemson (4-2, 3-1) at Heinz Field.
It's the kind of showdown Pickett believed was possible when he stunned coach Pat Narduzzi and announced last December he was going to stick around rather than head to the NFL. And while he's certainly done as much as any player in the country to help his pro prospects over the last 10 months, that's not why he's still here.
He's here to help a program that's been stuck in middling purgatory under Narduzzi take a big leap forward by finally getting the better of the Tigers.
Pickett is 0-2 against Clemson in his career. He threw for just 8 — yes, 8 — yards in a 42-10 loss to the Tigers in the 2018 ACC championship and tossed four picks in a 52-17 blowout in Death Valley last year.
“I haven't beat those guys yet,” Pickett said. “I know a lot of guys are excited to go out there and play.”
While Pickett's breakout has caught some by surprise, longtime Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables isn't among them.
“I thought a year ago, he had a great year. It’s more of the same,” Venables said. “He’s patient, he’s confident, excellent runner. He’s strong, he’s fast. He makes everybody better.”
And while the Tigers are in the midst of a down year — at least by their remarkably high standards — the Panthers aren't buying into the idea that Clemson is somehow vulnerable.
“They are still the gauge in the ACC, period,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They are the best.”
OFFENSE IN FLUX
Clemson is averaging just 20.5 points per game, the fewest in the ACC and four touchdowns behind the 48.3 points the Panthers are putting up.
Still, coach Dabo Swinney remains upbeat.
“We’re a lot closer than people on the outside think,” Swinney said. "It’s just a matter of finishing on some plays and getting 11 guys together. Everyone has to be on the same page. Just communication and continuity with 11 guys getting their jobs done. It’s all a reflection on us as coaches.”
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei believes the offense's problems are as much mental as they are physical.
“I think sometimes it’s in our own head," Uiagalelei said. "We know how good we can be and we try and be too perfect ... As long we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we’re going to explode.”
If they can do it on Saturday, the Tigers will restore a sense of order in the ACC and send Pitt back onto the treadmill of “OK but not great” that it has been on for the overwhelming majority of Narduzzi's seven-year tenure.
IZZY DOES IT
Pitt finally may have found a running game to take some of the pressure off Pickett.
Sophomore Israel “Izzy” Abanikanda ran for a career-high 140 yards last week in a dominant win at Virginia Tech, allowing the Panthers to hold the ball for more than 38 minutes and keep the defense fresh.
Narduzzi believes Abanikanda has created some separation between himself and Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond, though the task figures to be far tougher this week against a Clemson defense allowing just 12.5 points and 3.1 yards per carry.
Five years ago, Pitt rolled into Death Valley as a three-touchdown underdog and pulled off a 43-42 shocker, the only loss the Tigers suffered that season on their way to the national title.
The tables have turned a bit this time around. The Panthers are favored by 3 1/2 points, a testament to Pickett's play and Clemson's inability to get anything going offensively.
Not that Narduzzi is paying any attention to the oddsmakers.
“I don’t know who makes those decisions,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know what they look at. I don’t know anything. I just know they are a really good football team and we are going to have to play our best to have a chance to win.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina contributed to this report.
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