PITTSBURGH — Miami’s perfect season is over. The Hurricanes can only hope their shot at a spot in the College Football Playoff isn’t gone, too.
Freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett ran for two touchdowns and threw for another as Pittsburgh stunned the second-ranked Hurricanes 24-14 on Friday. Pickett bulled over from 6 yards in the first half, flipped a 5-yard shovel pass to Qadree Ollison in the third quarter to put the Panthers up 10 and gave Pitt (5-7, 3-5 ACC) all the cushion it would need with a 22-yard fourth-down sprint to the end zone with 2:54 remaining.
Pickett completed 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and the one score while adding 60 yards rushing in his first career start as Pitt finished a disappointing season with a decisive stunner that could put a dent in the Hurricanes’ national title hopes.
Malik Rosier completed 15 of 34 for 187 yards and two scores but was ineffective for most of the day, even briefly getting replaced by backup Evan Schirreffs in the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 ACC) were held to a season-low 229 yards.
The Hurricanes stressed they’d learned their lesson after spotting Virginia a two-touchdown lead last week before recovering to extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 15 games. Yet Miami walked onto the Heinz Field turf in a weird spot.
The ACC Coastal Division champions are well aware their meeting with No. 4 Clemson in the conference championship game next Saturday will serve as the ultimate arbiter on whether the Hurricanes are worthy of consideration for the College Football Playoff, making the visit to Pittsburgh possibly irrelevant regardless of the outcome if the Hurricanes beat the defending national champions in Charlotte.
Time to put the theory to the test.
“I still think there’s an awful lot to play for,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen in the big picture, how many teams lost a game on a Friday and came back and got in the top four? How many teams lost one game and won a conference championship and got right back in it? Who knows? So we don’t know.”
Flat at the start and flatter at the finish, the swagger the Hurricanes have played with during their rebirth under Richt evaporated against the Panthers, who know a thing or two about pulling off the improbable.
A year ago, the Panthers handed Clemson its only loss of the season with a thrilling victory in Death Valley. A decade ago they stunned West Virginia in the regular season finale, a setback that cost the Mountaineers a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Those two now have company, with head coach Pat Narduzzi saying as much during a brief sideline interview at the start of the second half. Then the Panthers went out and backed it up.
“I talked about the past and the big upset win at West Virginia,” Narduzzi said. “It happened in Clemson last year. I told the players it’s about time it happened in Pittsburgh.”
Pitt’s defense frustrated Rosier all afternoon, tipping passes at the line of scrimmage and creating pressure that forced him into the kind of mistakes he’s avoided for much of the season. Even when he had time, Rosier was sloppy, overthrowing open receivers.
“I guess I got complacent,” Rosier said. “I was just out there to be out there. I was going through my reads instead of dialing in and focusing in on every snap. After that it put this football game in perspective that at any moment I could get pulled. It hurts.”
The Panthers meanwhile, were in control all the way. Pitt took the lead for good when Pickett vaulted into the end zone with 35 seconds left in the first half. Pickett bulled over Miami cornerback Jaquon Johnson in the process, a sign Pitt was not going to be pushed around.
Miami: The Hurricanes may have that glittery record and marquee wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, but they’ve lived dangerously all year. Their uninspired performance with a perfect season at stake - not the first time Miami has looked ‘blah’ this season - opens the door to give the CFP committee an out if things get messy elsewhere.
Pitt: The season-long search for a quarterback finally appears to be over. Pickett, the first true freshman to start for the Panthers in a decade, played with confidence and swagger. Pickett’s mix of poise and aggressiveness should give him a firm grasp of the starting job heading into the offseason.
Miami: Makes its first ACC championship game appearance on Dec 2.
Pitt: Will open the 2018 season at home against Albany on Sept. 1.