The ACC Championship game is checks notes
I got to sit down with Mike Wilson over at Cardiac Hill to get a bit more info on the Panthers.
BSD: The odds of Wake-Pitt being in the ACC title game had to be somewhere around 25,000-1. Just how does it feel to get to the title game, and how did Pitt get here in the first place?
CH: Pitt fans are pretty excited about it. Students were lined up for tickets to the title game overnight despite the cold and the snow up here, so it’s a pretty big deal. And with Clemson not representing the Atlantic this time, there’s some hope that it will actually be a game worth watching.
Pitt was led to this point by Kenny Pickett. Pickett simply took his game to another level this year, and he’s taken Pitt from mediocrity to the top level of college football as a result. But alongside him, the rest of the offense has balanced out, and that’s been vital to the team’s success.
BSD: Kenny Pickett for Heisman? Can you sell me on why he deserves to be on the podium?
CH: Kenny Pickett has scored 44 touchdowns and thrown for more than 4,000 yards this year. Neither of his top competitors for the award (C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young) have done that this season, and they’ve failed to do so despite playing behind five-star linemen and throwing to five-star receivers. Pickett hasn’t had those luxuries, but he has almost single-handedly transformed a long-dormant program into something resembling its former greatness.
BSD: While known for their offense, Pitt finds themselves 33rd in defensive SP+, what makes this defense tick?
CH: It’s all about the defensive line and the linebackers. Those two position groups put constant pressure on quarterbacks and stifle running backs, and they are the reason Pitt ranks in the top five nationally in sacks, tackles for losses, and rushing defense. However, the defensive backfield is far less accomplished and ranks 112th in passing defense, and that has caused Pitt some problems this season.
BSD: What can’t Pitt do if they want to head to a NY6 bowl?
CH: Pitt can’t get behind early in this game. Slow starts have been a problem for Pitt from time to time this season, and while that was fine against Syracuse, Duke, and Tennessee, it could be disastrous in a matchup with a team like Wake Forest.
Pitt also can’t afford to let up at any point in this game. That happened late in Pitt’s 30-23 overtime win over North Carolina, as the Tar Heels outscored the Panthers 16-0 in the second half. It almost cost the team a win it badly needed, and if it happens again in Charlotte, it could cost Pitt its chance at an ACC championship.
BSD: We don’t get to see Pitt too often, outside of Pickett and Addison, who are some names on offense and defense that Wake fans should keep an eye on?
CH: On offense, Gavin Batholomew has been a godsend for Pitt at tight end. He’s a true freshman Pitt flipped from Buffalo last year, and he has fast become one of Kenny Pickett’s favorite targets — especially in situations where Pitt needs a first down. Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond have also been solid in the backfield.
On defense, Habbakuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey are standouts on the line, and they should get after Sam Hartman early and often. And behind them, look out for SirVocea Dennis and John Petrishen as clutch playmakers at linebacker.
BSD: Attendance has been a hot topic on Twitter lately, how do you think the Pitt faithful will travel this weekend?
CH: Obviously, Pitt fans have farther to travel to get to Charlotte than Wake Forest fans, but it sounds like plenty of folks are making the trip. Given the disparity in mileage for the two fanbases, I expect Pitt fans to be in the minority. But I think it should be similar to the Pitt fanbase’s showing in Knoxville for the Tennessee game earlier this year, with a fair amount in attendance.
CH: With Wake Forest and Pitt ranked third and fourth in scoring offense, I’m expecting a shootout. And with Pitt’s defense giving up about six fewer points per game than Wake Forest’s and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with more frequency, I can see Pitt edging out Wake Forest by a score in the neighborhood of 45-38.