Unable to consistently cover in the back end or create pass-rush pressure up front, Tech was picked apart by Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett in his fourth career start against the Jackets, all wins.
An NFL draft prospect described this week by Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker as “one of the elite quarterbacks in college football right now,” Pickett was equal to the praise, taking advantage of time in the pocket to complete 23 of 36 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. On three separate drives, he needed only two plays to get the Panthers into the end zone, strafing the Jackets with six pass plays (five complete) that covered a total of 158 yards. The Panthers led 42-14 at halftime.
“He made plays,” Tech linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “There’s no more I can say on that. He made plays.”
Tech (2-3, 1-2 ACC) did itself no favors, as quarterback Jeff Sims threw interceptions on the Jackets’ first two possessions, one off a tipped pass and another when he was hit and the ball popped in the air. The latter was returned 33 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 Pitt lead with 9:16 left in the first quarter, dropping Tech into a deficit it could not make up.
For the day, the Jackets offense had to rely more on Sims than it might have preferred. The Pitt defense held the Tech running game, which entered the game averaging nearly 200 yards per game, to 73 yards on 31 attempts, the second-lowest rushing total in coach Geoff Collins’ tenure. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs, while catching six passes for a career-high 125 yards, was limited to minus-10 yards on 10 carries, well below his season average of 62.3 yards per game.
“They blitzed on almost every down,” Gibbs said.
Tech was without starting left guard Kenny Cooper, and started Paula Vaipulu, who was playing just the second game of his career. Right guard Ryan Johnson also was limited. Wide receiver Kyric McGowan, Tech’s leading receiver, was available only on an emergency basis, replaced by Nate McCollum, who made his first career touchdown catch.
Besides the two interceptions, the Jackets created further problems with two drives inside the Pitt 10-yard line that generated no points, once when Tech went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4 in the second quarter, and Sims missed on a slant to McCollum and later in the third quarter when a holding penalty wiped out a 7-yard touchdown run by Gibbs and then kicker Brent Cimaglia missed from 40 yards when the attempt was partially blocked.
After his two interceptions on his first two pass attempts of the game, Sims contributed his most prolific passing performance in his career – 24-for-33 passing for a career-high 359 yards, two touchdowns and the two interceptions. It was the most passing yards by a Tech quarterback since a 486-yard game by George Godsey in 2001.
“At the end of the day, we still lost, so I don’t even care about the stats that I have,” Sims said.
Pitt (4-1, 1-0) won its fourth consecutive game over the Jackets, the past three at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi improved to 6-1 against Tech.