Browne makes the most of second chance

Chris Peak, Publisher

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At one point in the first quarter of Pitt’s loss to Oklahoma State two weeks ago, before that game got wildly out of hand, the Panthers trailed 14-0 (a manageable margin by comparison to the rest of the game) and were still clinging to the slim hopes of being competitive with the Cowboys.

Pitt had the ball close to midfield, facing a second-and-9 at its own 49. Max Browne, in his third start as the Panthers’ quarterback, dropped back and pump-faked. The move hit the mark, as the Oklahoma State cornerback covering Pitt receiver Jester Weah dropped off, leaving the redshirt senior wide open for an easy touchdown.

But Browne’s pass was too deep, beyond what even Weah could catch up to. Browne was sacked on the next play to force a punt and was pulled after two more failed drives in favor of redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci, who finished that game and got the nod to start the subsequent loss at Georgia Tech.

On Saturday against Rice, Browne was back on the field as the starting quarterback, and on Pitt’s second possession, the Panthers had a first down at their own 49.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called the pump-and-go again. Browne pumped again. Weah sold the route again. The cornerback bit again. All of it worked the way it had against Oklahoma State - everything up until the throw, that is, because against Rice, Browne’s throw was right on the money. Weah was all alone when he caught it and trotted into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown that put the Panthers ahead 14-0.

Browne’s second chance at the pump-and-go, like his second chance at being the starting quarterback, went a lot better than the first.

“Being a fifth-year senior, you experience a lot and you kind of don’t get worked up in that and you just understand that it’s one play at a time; here’s my read, go out and execute and let the chips fall where they may,” Browne said after Saturday’s game, a 42-10 win for Pitt. “I think that’s one thing I’ve learned over the five years: just go out there and do what I can do, what’s going to happen is going to happen, and today it worked out for us.”

What didn’t work against Oklahoma State worked against Rice, and according to Browne, what the offense showed on Saturday was a lot closer to what it looks like day in and day out. And the results were exceptional, as Browne set career highs in completions (28), passing yards (410) and passing touchdowns (four) as he put in one of the finest single-game performances by a quarterback in Pitt history.

“I think that’s what’s made the last few weeks so tough is everyone sees what we do in practice and what we showed out today is nothing new to us,” Browne said Saturday. “We’re not walking off the field like we unlocked some code or something; that was just business as normal. So to go out there and do it in a game setting, I think that’s huge for us to say, ‘Hey, the things we are doing Monday through Friday are paying off.’ It gives us a boost moving forward.”

And it most notably gives Browne a boost. After throwing for all of 338 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in his first three starts, the grad transfer from USC was looking like a lost cause. The coaches had benched him in the Oklahoma State loss and gave DiNucci a full chance to take the job with the start at Georgia Tech.

But this wasn’t the first time Browne has gone from being the starter to the backup in a season. He opened last year as USC’s starter before a 1-2 start got him replaced by Sam Darnold, who entered 2017 as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. So getting benched at Pitt was nothing new for Browne; in fact, he was probably better prepared to handle it after the experience at USC.

“I’ve kind of always tried to stay even throughout the whole thing,” Browne said. “Lot of season left and when they gave me the nod, it was just like, Alright, business as usual. That’s the best way to put it. It wasn’t like it was this huge exciting deal; it was just, alright, here we go. And I feel like that mindset helped me today.”

That businesslike approach also had a fair amount of looseness for Browne. Rather than looking over his shoulder, wondering if every incompletion might send him back to the bench - a scenario he avoided by only throwing four incomplete passes - Browne was comfortable and loose, following advice his head coach gave him before the game.

“Just be yourself and go out there and have some fun, really,” Narduzzi said when asked what he said to Browne. “Don’t be a tight butt out there. Go relax and have some fun. Do what you know how to do, you know?”

Call it “getting the rust off,” as Narduzzi said Saturday afternoon. Or maybe the protection from the offensive line was a little better. Or perhaps the play-calling better maximized Browne’s skills. Whatever it was, there’s no question that the Browne who played on Saturday looked a lot more like what Pitt was expecting to get when the staff recruited him last December.

“He threw the ball like we thought he was capable,” Narduzzi said.

And maybe, Browne can gain some momentum from Saturday’s success and finish his college career the way he was hoping for when he signed with Pitt.

For now, though, he’ll settle for following one good game with another.

“Roller coaster, that’s for sure,” Browne said. “But [I'm] just happy that we were able to kind of right the ship today, as far as, that’s what we’ve been doing for months and it’s a great feeling to be able to go out there and show that for everyone: QB, running backs, receivers, offensive line. To go out there and show that, that’s about as good a feeling as you can have.”

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