Pickett, No. 25 Pitt escape Howell, UNC 30-23 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – A rare mistake by Kenny Pickett nearly cost No. 25 Pittsburgh.

The senior quarterback turned darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate made up for it by doing what he’s done so often during his record-breaking season: make something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy.

Pickett atoned for a late interception that allowed North Carolina to force overtime by firing a strike through a downpour at soggy Heinz Field to tight end Lucas Krull during the first possession of overtime for an 11-yard score that put the Panthers back in front.

Pitt’s defense did the rest, harassing Tar Heels star Sam Howell into a desperation fourth-down heave that landed in the outstretched arms of Panthers defensive back M.J. Devonshire to finish off a 30-23 victory.

“Listen, everyone’s talking about offense,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “You win championships with defense. And that was a championship-level performance.”

One that kept the Panthers (8-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) in control of the Coastal Division with two games to go. Pitt will earn its second trip to the ACC title game in four years if it wins out or if it beats Virginia next week and Miami drops any of its final three games.

Pickett’s 32nd touchdown of the season to Krull finished off a 346-yard performance in which he became the school’s all-time leader in yards passing. Pickett slipped past Alex Van Pelt’s mark of 11,267 career yards in the first quarter, the latest in a series of records that have fallen during his breakout season.

“It’s awesome but all the records, awards, accolades, it’s really a team effort,” Pickett said. “I want to thank my teammates, coaches. It’s been a heck of a run, but we’re not done yet.”

Maybe not, but Pitt flirted with the idea while letting a 16-point halftime lead slip away. Howell threw for a touchdown and ran for another to get the Tar Heels (5-5, 3-4) within 23-20 with 5:34 to go.

Pitt opted to stay aggressive. Maybe too aggressive. Pickett’s pass on the first snap of the Panthers’ next drive bounced off two pairs of hands before North Carolina linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel grabbed it at the Pitt 35.

The Tar Heels drove to the Pitt 3 before settling for a game-tying 21-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins on fourth down instead of going for the win in regulation.

It’s a decision that will eat at North Carolina coach Mack Brown for a while. He initially wanted to keep Howell and the offense on the field before changing his mind.

“It’s easy to sit here and second guess myself but if I knew it was going to pour the rain, it would have been more fair to take the one shot,” Brown said.

Brown cited his team’s solid second-half defense and the momentum Howell generated late as reasons he chose to kick. Then the rain came and North Carolina’s shot at a second upset of a ranked team in five days washed away.

Playing on offense first, it took Pitt all of four plays to reclaim the lead when Pickett hit the 6-foot-6 Krull just across the goal line.

Needing to respond, North Carolina went backward. Three plays lost a yard and on 4th-and-11 Howell found himself running near midfield while being chased before launching a rainbow into a sea of players in Pitt jerseys that Devonshire grabbed to set off a giddy – if wet – celebration.

HOWELL vs. PICKETT

More than 30 NFL executives – from scouts to general managers – turned out to watch two quarterbacks expected to hear their name called pretty early in next year’s draft.

Pickett dominated early, throwing for 208 yards and two scores in the first half alone. Howell overcame a shaky first half in which he was sacked five times, dominated late. He threw for 182 of his 296 yards in the second half and used his legs to extend plays when the protection in front of him broke down, which happened frequently.

The two met afterward, with Pickett offering Howell a prediction of sorts.

“I told him, I don’t think this is the last we’ll see each other,”‘ Pickett said.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: When the Tar Heels can protect Howell and get stops on defense, they’re dangerous. When they don’t, they’re a mess. While Brown praised his team’s resilience, the fact North Carolina keeps falling into massive holes is a problem.

Pitt: The Panthers’ hope for the program’s first 10-win season since 2009 remains very much alive thanks in part to a defense that’s been hot and cold all season. Pitt found a way to make things difficult enough for Howell to build a lead and Pickett’s poise in overtime helped the Panthers avoid the kind of “Pitt being Pitt” loss that’s become a trademark of sorts for most of the last four decades.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Panthers will stay in the polls though they Will Likely need some teams above them to falter over the weekend to make any sort of major leap.

UP NEXT

North Carolina: Get a breather of sorts when FCS-opponent Wofford visits Chapel Hill on Nov. 20.

Pitt: Pickett will make his final appearance at Heinz Field – as a collegian at least – when the Cavaliers visit. Pitt has won four of its last five meetings with Virginia.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.