PITTSBURGH — Tom Savage spent more than 1,000 days waiting for his return to college football. For a good 5 minutes, it went better than the Pittsburgh quarterback and his program — making its Atlantic Coast Conference debut — could have imagined.
Savage’s first pass since his sophomore season at Rutgers in 2010 went 31 yards to Devin Street. His fourth landed in the hands of Manasseh Garner for a touchdown that gave the Panthers a quick lead on 11th-ranked Florida State. Then reality — and Seminoles redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston — set in. While Savage fell back to earth, Winston soared as Florida State pulled away for a 41-13 victory.
Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score as the Seminoles showed just how wide the gap between the haves and the have-nots is in Pitt’s new conference home.
“I think they’re unbelievable,” Savage said. “I think they’re a great team.”
One with a quarterback who might even be better than that.
The Panthers had been pointing to the opener from the moment the program announced the move from the Big East to the ACC nearly two years ago. Playing in front of a rare sell-out, Pitt didn’t look nearly as prepared for the big stage as the kid nicknamed “Famous Jameis.”
“I wasn’t surprised by him because we’d never seen him play before,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “He did a good job of making plays and extending plays.”
Savage passed for 201 yards and a touchdown for Pitt but also threw two interceptions.
Or, as many interceptions as Winston had incompletions.
Still, Savage remained upbeat. Wide receiver Devin Street caught six passes for 141 yards. Freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd ran three times for 54 yards, caught two passes for 26 yards and nearly broke a kickoff return for a touchdown.
“When I first got out there, I was nervous and shaky, but after I got that first down I was cool after that,” Boyd said.
Pitt’s defense, which ranked 17th in the country last season, wasn’t nearly as poised. At times, it appeared the Panthers were unsure on how to stop Winston. Wary of the speed of Florida State’s wide receivers, the Panthers gave Greene and company plenty of room to maneuver.
Too much, as it turned out. For all of Winston’s precision, often he was throwing to teammates who didn’t have anybody in dressed in blue within arm’s reach.
“We never made them uncomfortable,” Chryst said. “Give them credit. We’ve got to tackle better, but they ran through our tackles.”
The Panthers were primed early looking to prove they belonged in the better, deeper ACC after more than two decades of middling success in the crumbling Big East.
Savage won the starting job during the spring then completed his long collegiate odyssey when he suited up for a game for the first time since November, 2010. The 23-year-old left Rutgers for Arizona in 2011 before heading to Pitt a year ago.
While allowing there was some serious adrenaline pumping, Savage collected himself enough to showcase at times why he was so highly recruited back in 2009. His 31-yard strike to Street was a nearly perfect throw, and he appeared undaunted in the face of a steady pass rush.
“Obviously, we’re a little down, because we lost the game,” Savage said. “But I think we saw a lot of bright things out there, and we’re going to stay optimistic with this offense. And we’re going to move forward, and I think people are going to see a real special offense this year.”
The Panthers saw one on Monday. It just happened to be the guys in the white uniforms.
Florida State’s first drive fizzled. The second ended with Winston hitting Nick O’Leary — the grandson of golfing great Jack Nicklaus — for a 24-yard touchdown. The two hooked up again on the next drive, with Winston executing a perfect play fake before flipping the ball to O’Leary in the back of the end zone to give Florida State a 14-10 lead.
Pitt responded with a field goal to draw within four by the Seminoles were just getting started. Winston ended a 14-play, 78-yard march with a 5-yard touchdown run in which he bulled through a Panthers defender before crossing the goal line to make it 21-10 with 2:13 left in the first half.
Savage threw an interception on Pitt’s ensuing possession and Winston needed all of three plays to put things out of reach. When an illegal block and a delay of game had the Seminoles facing first-and-28, he found Greene down the sideline with a perfect throw to Greene’s back shoulder. On the next snap Winston found Greene over the middle for a score to put the Seminoles up 28-10.