Kenny Pickett won the ACC for Pitt. He could win for the Carolina Panthers, too

·7 min read

To watch Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett Saturday night in the ACC football championship was to imagine what he would look like quarterbacking an entirely different group of Panthers.

Pickett had the game’s most dazzling play in Pitt’s 45-21 win over Wake Forest Saturday — a controversial-fake-slide-turned-58-yard-rushing-TD that was the rare example of something you’ve never seen before on a football field.

Pickett did that in the game’s first 78 seconds.

After that, Pickett dueled it out with Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman. Both had their moments until Hartman crumbled, throwing four interceptions and eventually getting benched in the fourth quarter. And so it was Pickett — the 2021 ACC Player of the Year and a Heisman Trophy candidate — who won the game going away and gave Pitt its first ACC football title.

Pickett is thought of as a top-10 NFL pick by many, and because of the Carolina Panthers’ continuing quarterback problems he has been projected to the Panthers in some 2022 mock drafts.

There’s no telling where the Panthers will end up for their most problematic position in 2022. Sam Darnold is due nearly $19 million whether they keep him or not, so they probably will despite his pre-injury issues. Cam Newton will be a free agent who the Panthers would need to sign again if they want to extend the run of Newton 2.0. And there’s the trade and free agency market.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates after his team’s 45-21 win against Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. Pickett, the ACC Player of the Year, accounted for three touchdowns.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates after his team’s 45-21 win against Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. Pickett, the ACC Player of the Year, accounted for three touchdowns.

But Pickett? He showed some serious promise Saturday in Bank of America Stadium. He made every throw and was poised, despite getting hurt by a couple of horrible shotgun snaps and some clock mismanagement at the end of the first half. When he threw his 42nd TD pass of the season in the second quarter, he set an ACC single-season record for most passing TDs, previously held by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

Pickett wound up completing 20 of 32 passes for 253 yards and two TDs before the Panthers called timeout with 4:53 to go to take him out of the game and give him a curtain call to huge cheers of “Kenny! Kenny!”

The Pittsburgh QB is also more mobile than I thought he was, and his controversial 58-yard TD run was the finest example of that. About 20 yards in, Pickett had already picked up a first down and looked for all the world like he was going to slide to the turf.

But after freezing the Wake defense by acting as if he was going down, he stutter-stepped, straightened up and sprinted the rest of the way for the 58-yard TD.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates after scoring against Wake Forest on a 58-yard run during the first quarter of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates after scoring against Wake Forest on a 58-yard run during the first quarter of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

Inside the stadium watching his alma mater was Dan Marino, the former Pitt star and NFL hall of famer.

In the pros, Marino was the author of the first “fake spike,” pretending to clock the ball and instead throwing a TD pass. Now here was Pickett, who has broken some of Marino’s most significant records, authoring the fake slide.

Clawson didn’t like fake slide

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson wasn’t very happy about the fake slide.

Said Clawson afterward in his news conference: “I’ve never, ever seen that before.... I don’t think he did it intentionally. If he did, he’s brilliant. I just think he reacted as an athlete. But what do you tell your players? The quarterback is protected and you start a slide, and there’s two guys that could have made a play that stopped playing because he started to slide.... I think that’s something they (the NCAA) have to look at and come up with a rule for.... If that’s the rule, I’ll just have my guy fake-kneeing all the way down the field.... You can’t fake a slide.”

Pickett did, though, and admitted he did it on purpose.

“Yeah, it was intentional,” he said afterward. “I started slowing down and pulling up getting ready to slide and I just kind of saw their body language, they pulled up as well..... I’ve never done that before, so I just kind of kept going after I was initially starting to slide.”

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett fakes a quarterback slide, digging his right toe into the artificial turf as if he is going down, before rising back up and finishing a 58-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest during the first quarter of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. Pitt won, 45-21.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett fakes a quarterback slide, digging his right toe into the artificial turf as if he is going down, before rising back up and finishing a 58-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest during the first quarter of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. Pitt won, 45-21.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi stuck up for his player and downplayed Clawson’s criticism. “We never practiced it,” Narduzzi said. “It wasn’t something where today we said we’re going to fake slide. It was a football play, and Kenny Pickett is the best, and that’s why he’s a champion.”

Yes they are, and it is unusual. Clemson had won the past six ACC championships in a row and Florida State the three before that.

So this was an ACC title game with new blood, as Pittsburgh and Wake Forest entered a game that had no relevance to the College Football Playoff but a lot of relevance to the Pittsburgh and Wake fans who rolled into Charlotte. The game’s announced attendance was 57,856, with the fans’ allegiance seemingly split about 50-50.

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, center, runs the ball against Pitt during the ACC Championship game at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday December 4, 2021. Hartman was harassed the entire game and ended up throwing four interceptions in Pitt’s 45-21 win.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, center, runs the ball against Pitt during the ACC Championship game at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday December 4, 2021. Hartman was harassed the entire game and ended up throwing four interceptions in Pitt’s 45-21 win.

Pittsburgh defense takes over

The first quarter, which took 53 minutes of actual time, was football as a videogame and showed why both teams were among the top four highest-scoring teams in the country coming in.

The game’s first four possessions ended in touchdowns, with Hartman and Pickett each throwing for one and running for one. Only on the fifth possession did Pittsburgh finally falter, with a missed 49-yard field goal, and then Hartman and Wake rolled to another TD and a 21-14 lead after the first quarter.

At that point, it looked like Wake might never be stopped. The Deacons had 195 first-quarter yards, ran 30 plays and had 18 first downs. It was staggering.

But it all ground to a halt in the second quarter, as Pitt began getting more pressure on Hartman and the Deacons suddenly couldn’t score. In fact, they didn’t score at all for the rest of the game. In the meantime, Pittsburgh got a second TD pass from Pickett and a field goal just before halftime to take a 24-21 lead.

Pitt’s defense continued to harass Hartman, forcing him into his second of his four interceptions late in the third quarter. The Panthers took that one in for a score that increased their lead to 31-21, and by then it was all but over. Hartman would soon throw two more interceptions, including a pick-six by game MVP Erick Hallett, to get to four — he also threw four picks in Wake Forest’s loss to Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in December 2020. After scoring TDs on each of its first possessions, Wake had zero points in its final 13 possessions.

“I’m up here right now and I’m gutted,” Clawson said afterward. “I mean, I’m dying inside and I know our players are. But time heals all wounds.”

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman watches during warmups before the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman watches during warmups before the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

Pickett — who said he did plan to play in Pitt’s bowl game against Michigan State in the Peach Bowl — wasn’t perfect, either. He was turnover-free, though, so his mistakes were more minor than Hartman’s. Once on third-and-15 from the Wake 24, Pickett took a sack you just can’t take to knock his team out of field-goal range. On a fourth-and-1 in Wake territory, he took a deep shot into double coverage, giving the ball up on downs on an incompletion.

But Pickett tries a lot of stuff, which you have to admire. And he was talented. And he orchestrated more touchdowns in Bank of America Stadium than any other Panther QB has this fall while Pitt outscored Wake 31-0 after the first quarter. Late in the game, Pitt fans started chanting: “Kenny Heisman! Kenny Heisman!”

Alabama’s Bryce Young will probably win that trophy, but Carolina will need to strongly consider picking Pickett in April. You can’t tell for sure after watching Pickett play one game in a stadium he might one day call home.

But he could be the answer.

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