Pitt visits Wake looking to clinch spot in ACC title game
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Pittsburgh spoiled a conference rival's special season a year ago. The Panthers don't want Wake Forest to do the same thing to them.
Pitt will clinch its first appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game with a win over the Demon Deacons on Saturday.
But the Panthers (6-4, 5-1) are on spoiler alert.
They know all too well how dangerous it is to play a road game on the home field of a meandering opponent. A year ago, a sub-.500 Pitt team ruined then-No. 2 Miami's undefeated season with a 24-14 upset and sent the Hurricanes into a late-season nosedive.
Coach Pat Narduzzi's team, picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, has won three straight and four of five since starting 1-3 and needs to beat either Wake Forest or Miami to wrap up a spot opposite No. 2 Clemson in Charlotte on Dec. 1. The Panthers haven't won four in a row since 2015.
"When we're going in there to play Wake Forest, it's a one-game season right now. Nothing else matters," Narduzzi said. "Good things can happen we know, and it doesn't matter. If they're worried about that ... your focus has got to be singular right now, and if you're worried about these other things, you just get — you're wandering off."
The Demon Deacons (5-5, 2-4) already have one upset to their credit: They're coming off a last-minute 27-23 victory at North Carolina State that knocked the Wolfpack out of the national rankings and gave a jolt to their fading bowl hopes. Wake Forest will qualify for its third straight bowl by beating either the Panthers or Duke.
Beating N.C. State "was an awesome win. It is awesome to think about, but it doesn't mean a whole lot if we don't come out and play this weekend," offensive lineman Ryan Anderson said. "This Pitt game is huge and our confidence level is a little bit higher going into this game. After a huge game like that it always is."
The Panthers are getting it done on the ground. Pitt ranks second in the ACC in rushing (257 ypg) and has surpassed 400 yards rushing in two of its last three games, including a season-best 492 in a 52-22 rout of Virginia Tech that was punctuated by Qadree Ollison's 97-yard touchdown run. Pitt is 5-1 when it rushes for at least 230 yards. Wake Forest's rejuvenated defense, meanwhile, held N.C. State to 47 yards rushing last week.
Pitt shares the FBS lead with Oklahoma and South Florida with 10 plays covering at least 60 yards, and has had four others go for at least 50 yards. Giving up big plays has been a big problem for the Demon Deacons, who have allowed 13 50-yarders — only three schools have given up more. But there has been improvement: Against N.C. State, they gave up only one play longer than 25 yards.
Pitt can match the school record for conference victories with a win. The Panthers set the mark with five ACC victories in 2015, when they finished second to North Carolina in the Coastal standings, and the longtime Eastern independents never won more than five Big East games in a season from the formation of the conference in 1991 until they departed following the 2012 season.
NEED FOR (LESS) SPEED
Narduzzi was wary of the tempo of Wake Forest's offense, saying the Panthers will "prepare our tails off for the tempo, the high-speed tempo that we'll have to defend this week." But slowing things down actually worked to the Demon Deacons' advantage last week. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson says they consciously ran fewer offensive plays against N.C. State — just 71 of them, 14 fewer than their average — to give their overworked defense a break and make things easier on first-time starting QB Jamie Newman.