‘Pitt Special’ a Defining Play for Improved, Resilient Panthers

Panthers show toughness in upset of No. 15 UCF

Josh Rowntree
September 21, 2019 - 9:41 pm

A rare occurrence. Pittsburgh can thank Philadelphia for something.

Just over 19 months from the Eagles’ ‘Philly Special’ trick play that helped capture Super Bowl LII, the Pitt Panthers borrowed something from their playbook. Literally. 

Utilizing the now infamous trick play, wide receiver Aaron Mathews hit quarterback Kenny Pickett with 56 seconds left, as Pitt stunned No. 15 UCF, 35-34, at Heinz Field Saturday. 

“We practice it a lot,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It’s called the Pitt Special, and it was special today.”

The play itself, and the bravado to call it, will draw many of the headlines. But the Panthers, collectively, deserve credit for the resiliency shown in the win and the marked improvement on both sides of the football.

Pitt, after all, watched a 21-point lead evaporate, as the Knights, winners of 27-straight regular season games, scored 31 points to take a lead before the Panthers rallied.

Pile on about a dozen injuries and multiple questionable penalties and Pitt, now 2-2 this season, truly had to fight out another surprising upset, something that is becoming a trademark of Narduzzi’s program. But still, they have their doubters in games like this.

“We saw how they were picked,” said Pickett, who passed for 224 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 61 more yards before the winning catch. “What's his name, Jesse Palmer? That's his name, right? On ESPN? It's an easy win against Pitt, I guess, every week. 

“He said it last week and he said it again this week. We watch, we see. We just use it as motivation.“ 

Palmer, according to Narduzzi, said that UCF was a “virtual lock” to win the game. 

But the national pundits mean little, really. Narduzzi’s teams have marquee wins over the likes of Clemson and Miami, both ranked No. 2 in the country at the time. Now this. 

This win is no fluke. Pitt is improving, game after game. And Saturday’s effort is proof of just that. 

“We just keep plugging away,” Narduzzi said. “We can play with anybody if we execute and do the the details. And we still made a lot of mistakes. We left a lot of plays out on the field. But it says a lot about what kind of character this football team does have.”

"We’re the Pitt Panthers,” center Jimmy Morrissey added. “We can line up against anybody on Saturday and compete. We just need to stay consistent with it."

Narduzzi is right, there are areas to improve. Pitt kicker Alex Kessman missed two field goals which, without the late heroics, would have been costly. There’s also that whole blown lead business, which was aided by long passes past cornerbacks working in single coverage. 

But the effort to come back, to finish drives with points, to get consistent pressure (six sacks) on a young, but extremely talented quarterback in UCF’s Dillon Gabriel, speaks volumes. There were two interceptions, both coming in the red zone. Mathews also blocked a kick that Pitt returned for a touchdown. 

The offense is unlike anything Narduzzi has had to this point during his time in Pittsburgh. Sure, he’s had teams that can score points, but new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s group pushed the ball down the field. Pickett, who left with an injury but returned and led the winning drive, is blossoming into a talented and courageous passer.

The offensive line bounced back from a dismal effort against Penn State to help Pitt’s offense run for 196 yards and win the time of possession by over ten minutes.

It all shows that Narduzzi’s team is going to be able to compete — and win — in what still appears to be a fairly open Coastal Division of the ACC, which Pitt claimed last year. 

And that is where the mentality of the game’s breakout player, Mathews, had already turned after the game. 

“It’s a pretty big win,” he said. “But it’s not an ACC win, so it really doesn’t mean that much… It’s the 24 rule. We’ll worry about this for 24 hours and then on to the next one, Delaware.”

Hear more from Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi below.