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Pitt clinches ACC Coastal title with 34-13 win at Wake Forest

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Kenny Pickett threw for 316 yards and three touchdown passes, all in the second half, to lead Pitt over Wake Forest 34-13 on Saturday to clinch its first berth in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

WINSTON-SALEM, NC -- The win was the fourth straight and fifth in their past six games for the Panthers, who improved to 7-4 overall and 6-1 in the ACC Coastal Division. Pitt will face Atlantic Division champion Clemson at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 1, with a chance to earn the outright ACC title.

“We’re one step closer to where we want to go,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Pickett finished 23 of 30 with scoring strikes to Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench. The Panthers needed their sophomore quarterback to have the best game of his career, as the stingy Wake Forest defense limited Pitt’s vaunted rushing attack -- second-best in the ACC --  to just 154 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. It was just the fourth time this season the Panthers were held to under 200 yards.

Wake Forest -- fresh off last week’s upset of nationally-ranked NC State, came out of the gates hot.

The Deacons high-speed offensive tempo was difficult for Pitt to keep up with early on, as quarterback Jamie Newman connected on a 30-yard pass to Sage Surratt on a 3rd and nine, setting up a NIck Sciba 30-yard field goal to give the home team a 3-0 lead.

After a pair of fruitless drives that saw Pitt struggle to run the ball against Wake’s stacked front, Pickett took to the air as the Panthers finally started to move the ball on their third possession. The drive stalled at the Wake Forest 41 after Pickett threw incomplete on a 4th and 1.

Pitt got the ball back on the next play, however, as safety Damar Hamlin intercepted Newman on the Pitt 45. The Panthers managed just one first down, however, and were forced to punt.

Newman hooked up with Greg Dortch for a 25 yard pass play to move the ball to midfield, but the drive ended with a Cam Bright sack to set the Panthers up at their own 15.

Pickett then directed a 14-play, 85-yard drive that ate up nearly nine minutes and ended with a Darrin Hall two-yard touchdown run. Pitt converted four 3rd downs on the scoring drive, including a 29-yard pass to Lopes and a 31-yard strike to Ffrench. Alex Kessman’s point-after attempt was blocked, and Pitt took a 6-3 lead with four minutes remaining in the half.

Wake Forest responded to take a 10-6 lead on a 28-yard scoring strike from Newman to Dortch after Pitt missed an assignment in the secondary. The Panthers trailed by 4 at the break.

"Our guys just kept firing away," said Narduzzi about his team's struggles in the run-game. "They loaded the box and they made plays. We just kept plugging away and never stopped believing. We had faith in what we were doing."

Midway through the game’s third-quarter, Pickett engineered a 66-yard drive -- 65 through the air -- to put the Panthers ahead for the first time all afternoon. The sophomore connected with Mack for a 31-yard gain that set Pitt up inside the Deacons 10-yard line before finding the end zone on a 4-yard toss to Lopes. Pitt led 13-10.

Pickett continued to put the offense on his shoulders with a laser to Mack that turned into a 63-yard catch and run touchdown to extend the lead to 20-10.

Wake came right back with a 73-yard drive and had the ball at the Pitt 1, but the Deacons settled for a 20-yard field goal to pull within a touchdown with 12:30 to go in the game.

By that time, however, Pickett’s arm had successfully loosened up the Wake Forest defensive front. Ollison and Hall combined to move the ball inside the Wake 10, but a holding call negated an Ollison touchdown. Undeterred, Pickett hit Maurice Ffrench on the next play for a 23-yard touchdown and the Panthers held a 14-point advantage with 7:21 remaining in the contest.

“Defensively, we couldn’t get off the field,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “We ended up getting worn down a little bit. . We didn’t make the plays we had to make on offense.”

Cornerback Jason Pinnock ended Wake’s thoughts of a comeback with an interception near midfield. Pitt put the final touched on their championship with a six-yard pitch to offensive tackle Stefano Millin, who rumbled for the score to cement the final margin at 34-13.

"It means everything to us," Narduzzi sad of the team's division title. "Something everyone wants is to be a champion... It's the first step toward becoming champions -- we have to be the Coastal Division champions first."

Pitt finishes the regular season next week, at Miami, before heading back to North Carolina to play for a title.

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