Stock Watch: Kenny Pickett’s Big Day

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Each week here at Stock Watch we take a look at collegiate quarterback performances with really one thing in mind:

The 2022 NFL draft.

After a draft cycle that saw five quarterbacks go in the top 15 of the 2021 NFL draft, evaluators, fans and teams alike are wondering who will comprise the next crop of draft quarterbacks. Furthermore, many are looking for that next “QB riser,” that quarterback who comes from seemingly nowhere to capture national attention.

Every other week, we have looked at a group of passers, highlighting who helped themselves, and who might have taken a step back. But on this Saturday we highlight one young passer who might have taken a huge step forward. A quarterback who has earned the spotlight all to himself on this day.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Stock to the Moon: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Today was a day many in the draft evaluation community had circled on their calendars. Why? Because Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett would face the toughest challenge of his season to date, in Brent Venables and the Clemson defense. Entering play on Saturday, the Panthers offense was one of the most prolific in the nation, averaging 48.3 points per game, second only to Ohio State.

Of course, that scoring average was built thanks to hanging 77 on New Hampshire and another 51 on Massachusetts, and on this day they would see one of the best scoring defenses in the nation. Clemson entered the day ranked second in scoring defense, giving up just an average of 12.5 points per game, behind only Georgia.

If Pickett was going to have a statement game, this was an ideal time to do so.

The quarterback started off slowly, but picked up steam as the first half wore on. He showcased an ability to attack over the middle on dig routes, and on a scoring drive late in the second quarter he targeted Jared Wayne on such a route to move the chains on a 3rd and long situation. Then he hit star wide receiver Jordan Addison for a bit 29-yard gain on a beautifully-designed throwback concept that had Pickett throwing back to the left side of the field after sliding to his right.

That led to this third-down touchdown:

The Panthers roll the pocket by design, isolating Addison on a safety. Pickett makes an impressive throw on the move with ideal velocity and placement, putting Pittsburgh on the board.

But the Panthers were not done in the first half.

Right before halftime, Pittsburgh put together another little drive, but faced a 4th and 5 at the Clemson 39-yard line. Head coach Pat Narduzzi kept his offense on the field, and Pickett rewarded his coach’s faith:

From the end zone angle, you can see how the design of the play attacks a linebacker, and how the quarterback reads it to perfection before dropping in a perfect throw:

That gave the Panthers a 14-7 halftime lead, already above that 12.5 points per game allowed by the Tigers defense to date.

The second half was mainly about the Pittsburgh defense, particularly this play from linebacker SirVocea Dennis:

The 50-yard interception and touchdown off the attempted shovel pass gave the Panthers a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter. The teams traded field goals, and Pittsburgh held a 24-10 advantage into the final frame. Pittsburgh tacked on a field goal early in the fourth quarter to push their lead to 17, after a long drive worked more than five minutes off the clock.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers faced a critical third down on offense. The Tigers had just cut the Pittsburgh lead to 10, thanks to a touchdown run from their own quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. But it was Pickett, with his legs, moving the chains on a quarterback draw. A few plays later the Panthers faced another third down. Again, Pickett with his legs moved the chains:

Heisman moments are not usually short runs to move the chains on third down, but this might be the kind of year where those late runs to seal a win linger in the minds of voters.

Pittsburgh was able to work the clock down and finish the possession by running out the clock, giving the Panthers the 27-17 victory. In the win, Pickett finished the day completing 25 of 39 passes for 302 yards and the two touchdowns, and also added the pair of critical third-down conversions in the fourth quarter to help Pittsburgh put the game away.

What is next for Pickett and the Panthers?

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

With Saturday’s victory, the Panthers now have an inside track to the ACC Championship game. Pittsburgh sits at 6-1 overall, 3-0 in the conference, and control their own destiny in the ACC Coastal. The next two weeks they’ll take on Miami and then Duke, teams that have yet to win an ACC game.

Following that, their two biggest games left on the schedule. First they’ll host Sam Howell and the UNC Tar Heels, giving Pickett a chance to match up with a passer who many thought would be in that QB1 mix when the season got underway. The following week the Panthers will host Virginia and QB Brennan Armstrong, who has made a little noise of his own. But Pittsburgh’s two toughest remaining tests are both at home, giving Pickett and the Panthers a great shot at securing that division title and a spot in the conference championship game.

As for Pickett, this win against a well-coached defense probably locks up an invitation to the collegiate all-star game of his choosing, and you would think he would be a lock for a spot at the Senior Bowl, considering he received an invitation last season:

During a season where other quarterbacks have yet to put together that statement game, today’s win over Clemson is the closest thing we have seen to that kind of resume-maker.

But of course, there is still work to be done. You can be sure that Pickett will be putting in the work the rest of the way, and that when the season is done, that he’ll be working with his private quarterback coach, Tony Racioppi, with the combine and more on their minds.

A few weeks ago, I posited that we might be witnessing a “Mac Jones-style rise” from Pickett. A senior quarterback who works his way to the Senior Bowl, and then the middle of the first round. Obviously there is a lot of football left to be played and a lot of decisions to be made, but right now, that looks to be in the cards for Pickett.

Maybe even more could be as well.

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