Pitt’s offense needed to blow off some steam, and Rice was an ideal opponent for said steam-blowing.
Sporting one of the nation’s worst pass defenses, the Owls from Conference USA came to Heinz Field on Saturday focused on stopping the Panthers’ rushing attack. And they did that, holding Pitt to just 69 yards on the ground.
But the Panthers have a quarterback and some pretty talented receivers, too, and on Saturday, that group put in its best showing of the season, playing pitch-and-catch with an efficiency and effectiveness not seen in a Pitt game - by Pitt players, no less - in a long time.
“You start to wonder, like God, what do we need to do to get one?” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “It was good timing for it.”
There was Max Browne, the redshirt senior quarterback who returned to the starting lineup Saturday after being benched for last week’s game at Georgia Tech. He set career highs in pass completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his final stat line was a sparkling picture of high-end quarterback play:
28-of-32 (87.5%), 410 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 236.4.
Then there was Jester Weah, the redshirt senior receiver who was looking for an all-conference season after catching 36 passes for 870 yards and 10 touchdowns last season but found himself with just 84 yards and one score on eight catches through four games this year.
He was Browne’s biggest weapon on Saturday, putting together one of the best games of his career:
5 receptions, 137 yards, 1 touchdown.
All told, five players accounted for Pitt’s six touchdowns, including Chris Clark and Darrin Hall, who reached the end zone for the first time this season on Saturday.
“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.”
Aside from the individual successes, Pitt needed a game like Saturday just to restore confidence that the offense actually could score more than once or twice in a game. After the 28-21 win over Youngstown State in the opener, the Panthers’ offense went into a funk, with one touchdown at Penn State, two against Oklahoma State and one at Georgia Tech.
Including field goals, Pitt’s offense took credit for a total of 38 points over the last three weeks and seemed to be incapable of sustaining drives. Last week at Georgia Tech, Pitt had eight drives of four plays or less.
On Saturday against Rice, the Panthers had four such drives, although one of those was a three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
“It’s good to get a win; I can tell you that,” Narduzzi said. “After three long weeks for our kids, I’m happy for them.”
Now Pitt (2-3, 0-1) will try to keep the momentum going when it faces Syracuse at the Carrier Dome next Saturday.