MORE HEADLINES - Final box score: Syracuse 27, Pitt 24 | Video: Narduzzi after the loss | Narduzzi: "We left a lot of plays out there" | Free article: Pitt can't survive errors and mistakes | Post-game video: Ben DiNucci | Post-game video: Jordan Whitehead
SYRACUSE - One week after Pitt seemed to resolve its quarterback situation, the position found a way to become a whole new kind of quandary.
The new problem started in the third quarter of the Panthers’ 27-24 loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The loss was bad enough for its impact on Pitt’s long-term potential success this season, but it cut even deeper when, in third quarter, redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne took a sack on second-and-12 and suffered an injury to his throwing arm.
That brought redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci, the one-time starting, back into the fold. On his first full drive, DiNucci led the offense on a short drive that resulted in points when Alex Kessman bounced one in off the crossbar from 56 yards out (the longest kick in Carrier Dome history).
And on the next possession, after Syracuse scored to go up 27-16, DiNucci led Pitt’s second touchdown drive of the game, a scoring march that was kept alive when he stepped up in the pocket on third-and-7 to find Rafael Araujo-Lopes for a 22-yard completion. Four plays later, running back Qadree Ollison hit a cut-back lane and ran 19 yards for a touchdown and Jordan Whitehead ran in for a two-point conversion to make the score 27-24.
DiNucci finished with 55 yards on 6-of-10 passing and 13 net rushing yards - not great numbers, certainly not as impressive as Browne’s 410 yards and four touchdowns against Rice last week, but decent production on short notice.
“I’ve taken the same approach week to week, even coming out of camp,” DiNucci said after the game. “I’ve just said that, regardless of what happens, I’m going to be the best backup and prepare like I’m the starter. Max played great last week. It was very unfortunate what happened to him today. My number was called again today, so there was nothing else to do but go in there and play. That’s what you have to do.”
And DiNucci will likely get the start next week against N.C. State at Heinz Field, as Pat Narduzzi said Saturday that Browne will “probably be out for a couple weeks.”
But the Browne injury wasn’t the only complication in the quarterback scenario on Saturday, because something curious early in the touchdown drive that DiNucci led. On a first down play from the 25, DiNucci ran for seven yards, and as he was getting tackled, his helmet came off, meaning he had to leave the field for one snap.
That meant Pitt needed another quarterback beyond Browne and DiNucci - something that hadn’t happened all season. Pat Narduzzi eventually called a timeout, which allowed DiNucci to stay in the game without missing a play, but before the timeout was called, one quarterback had his helmet on and was ready to play.
It was freshman Kenny Pickett.
And when, on the penultimate play of the game, DiNucci’s helmet came off again, Pickett came onto the field, burning his redshirt for him to throw one pass (a 13-yard completion to Rafael Araujo-Lopes).
“He’s our third-best quarterback,” Narduzzi said of Pickett. “I think Max will probably be out for a couple weeks, and we’re going to need a guy. I had no hesitation. That guy’s a good football player. He’s going to have to play in the next couple weeks until Max gets back.”
The entire situation is interesting for Pitt. Pickett’s playing time came ahead of redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie, who continued to signal plays from the sideline after Browne went out, rather than warm up as the backup, which Pickett did. And Narduzzi’s pronouncement that Pickett was the No. 3 quarterback - which was likely known behind closed doors but became public on Saturday - further demonstrates the pecking order for that position.
Plus, there is the added element of - and perhaps pressure to - make it worthwhile to have burned Pickett’s redshirt. If the entirety of his playing time as a freshman consists of one pass on the final play of a loss at Syracuse, then it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing it as a redshirt removed for good reason.
So will Pickett see more playing time while Browne heals? That’s anyone’s guess, although Narduzzi thinks there’s a decent chance fate will bring the freshman from New Jersey back onto the field.
“He’s going to have to go in,” Narduzzi said. “You need two quarterbacks and he’s the next guy.”