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Three things to watch: Pittsburgh

Can the Hurricanes pull off the upset at Heinz Field?

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) scrambles with the ball under pressure from Miami defensive tackle Jon Ford (96) in Miami’s 16-12 win at Heinz Field in 2019.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes travel to Pittsburgh to take on the surprise of the ACC this season on Saturday at noon. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.

The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No.17 in the AP Poll and are the lone undefeated team (in conference play) in the ACC Coastal. The Hurricanes’ slim hopes of winning the ACC Coastal would be all but squashed with a loss on Saturday.

Keep reading for three things to watch in Saturday’s game.

Miami’s attempt to slow down Kenny Pickett

It’s hard to believe Kenny Pickett is still the quarterback at Pittsburgh.

Yes, the Kenny Pickett who was responsible for all three touchdowns in Pitt’s 24-14 victory over Miami in 2017 at Heinz Field that ended Miami’s undefeated streak in 2017.

Pickett is now a fifth-year senior who has the Panther offense humming at a level that few expected it to this season. The Panthers are fifth in the NCAA in total offense (526 yards per game) and fourth in the NCAA in scoring offense (45.3 points per game) in 2021.

The 23-year-old gunslinger has a 176.1 quarterback rating in 2021. In his previous four seasons at Pitt, he did not have a quarterback rating higher than 129.6.

He has thrown 23 touchdowns and just one interception after throwing nine interceptions in nine games last year. There’s no doubt something has clicked for Pickett and the Panther offense this season.

That is not great news for a Miami defense that has allowed 30 points or more to every power five opponent this season. The Hurricanes will have to defend at a high level on the back end and not miss tackles. Miami looked better doing this against North Carolina State last Saturday but also benefitted from some uncharacteristic drops from Wolfpack wide receivers.

One huge matchup for the Hurricanes will be with Pitt’s Jordan Addison in the slot. Addison leads the NCAA with 11 touchdown receptions this season. He is a very similar player to North Carolina’s Josh Downs, who lit the Hurricanes up for 11 catches, 96 yards and a touchdown.

It seems like it would make the most sense for Te’Cory Couch to draw Addison in coverage if he is fully recovered from being ill. That’s a tough assignment for any corner but Couch’s speed and quickness makes him the most capable Hurricane defensive back to try.

Miami will also need to double team or bracket Addison to make things slightly more complicated on Pickett on the pocket.

Addison and Pitt starting running back Israel Abanikanda are both game-time decisions because of their placement in concussion protocol.

Can Miami’s three offensive stars keep it going this week?

It seems like Miami’s offense found a rhythm last week behind quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, running back Jaylan Knighton, and wide receiver Charleston Rambo.

Van Dyke passed for 325 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to either Rambo or Knighton. Knighton finished the game with 166 total yards of offense and a touchdown while Rambo had 127 receiving and two touchdowns. That trio carried Miami to a close home victory over North Carolina State.

Assuming Pitt’s offense doesn’t just all of a sudden slow down, Miami will be relying on its best offensive players to have similar-type performances at Heinz Field this week.

Van Dyke again needs to stand tall in the pocket and confidently deliver the ball to his playmakers like he did last week without turning it over. Knighton needs to use his speed and quickness to get into the open field and make plays while Rambo needs to win Van Dyke’s deep balls in 1-on-1 coverage.

Miami’s offense will go as this trio goes on Saturday.

The Hurricanes must start fast on Saturday

For the first time in what seemed like years, Miami started fast against North Carolina State, as it jumped out to a 14-3 lead 16 minutes into the game.

If Miami is going to have any chance of winning this game, it has to do the same thing on Saturday at Heinz Field.

In Miami’s two ACC losses, it fell behind 19-7 to Virginia and 28-10 to North Carolina before coming alive and competing in the second halves of those games. The Panthers are playing far too well this season to spot them any type of early lead. Miami won’t likely be able to recover from that and win.

Take Pittsburgh’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech as an example. The Yellow Jackets started slow and fell behind 28-7 before eventually trailing 42-14 at halftime and losing 52-21. The Panthers are just too good to spot 28 points in the first 18:30 of the game like Georgia Tech.

If Miami does something similar to that, look out, it could get ugly in a hurry.

We all know that the Hurricanes have been known to start slow under Manny Diaz in big games. If that happens again on Saturday, Pittsburgh has the type of offense to make the score ugly very quickly.

Whatever pregame speech, changes in pregame tradition, or other voodoo Miami used last week to come out prepared for the North Carolina State game, it needs to make another appearance on Saturday. The Hurricanes can’t fall behind early because it will likely be too difficult to climb back into the game.