PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kenny Pickett threw for two touchdowns passes and the Pitt defense held Massachusetts to 209 yards of total offense as the Panthers cruised to a 51-7 season-opening victory on Saturday.
Pickett linked up with Lucas Krull and Jordan Addison for first-quarter touchdowns as the Panthers jumped out to a two-score lead in the first 15 minutes.
The fifth-year senior directed the offense efficiently, completing 27 of 37 passes for 272 yards and the two scores. Pickett also rushed six times for 39 yards on a combination of scrambles and designed runs.
Pickett missed one play after taking a hit late in the second quarter that caused Massachusetts linebacker Gerrell Johnson to be ejected for targeting, and the Pitt offense seemed to feed on the return of its leader.
“He’s got the heart of a lion,” Krull said. “He’s a special person. You’d go to war with that guy every day. You see him down, you hate to see it. As a team, we’re pissed off, because it’s a late hit and we hate seeing that from our quarterback and our leader. But we knew he was going to bounce right back.”
After taking an early lead, the Panthers leaned on the rushing game, with four different backs finding the end zone. A.J. Davis scored from 18 yards out in the second quarter.
In the third, Vincent Davis rushed in from six yards out and Israel Abanikanda scored from 12 yards to extend the lead.
Pickett exited late in the third quarter. Nick Patti added a rushing touchdown and was 5 of 5 for 58 yards. Daniel Carter scored late in the fourth. Pitt rushed 41 times for 222 yards.
The Minutemen were kept from the end zone until the fourth quarter, when Tyler Lytle scored on a one-yard keeper. He threw 26 times, completing 11 for 139.
Pitt’s defense seems to be up to its 2020 standard, despite losing five starters to the NFL. The Panthers held UMass to 209 yards of total offense, sacking Lytle five times, making six tackles for loss and forcing a fumble. The Panthers finished No. 20 among FBS teams, allowing 339.5 yards per game last season.
NEW FOCUS IN THE PASS RUSH
Pitt’s defense sent ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver, who combined for a total of 16.5 sacks last season, to the NFL after 2020.
If the first game is any indication, this year's pass rush might come more from the linebacker position, where Phil Campbell III, Wendell Davis and John Petrishen combined for four sacks.
“We’ve got some experienced linebackers that are explosive, they’re fast, and we’ll get our pressure from them, like we did a year ago,” Narduzzi said. “Our d-ends will get better. I think we missed some plays. ... There’s a couple times they got away.”
In addition to Pitt’s defensive excellence, the UMass offense continued its struggles from a year ago, when the Minutemen scored just 12 total points in a four-game slate.
“Just a little bit of self-inflicted wounds early in the football game that kept us in third and longs,” head coach Walt Bell said. “This is not the defense you want to be in third and longs against.”
Pitt will travel to Tennessee next Saturday in the first matchup between the teams since 1983. UMass hosts Boston College on Saturday. The Minutemen have lost 10 straight against the Eagles.