ATLANTA — KirVonte Benson is taking advantage of his unexpected opportunity to lead Georgia Tech’s running game.
Benson ran for a career-high 196 yards with two touchdowns, TaQuon Marshall added 112 yards rushing with two scoring runs, and Georgia Tech beat Pittsburgh 35-17 on Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for each team.
Benson, a third-year sophomore, was in line to be a backup before Dedrick Mills, the team’s leading returning rusher, was dismissed from the team three weeks before the season. Benson flourished on his 29 carries.
“I like the amount of times I got the ball,” Benson said. “I’m just glad I could perform when I had the ball in my hands.”
Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0) ran for 436 yards with five touchdowns.
“We expect to run for at least 300 yards every game,” Benson said. “That’s our goal.”
Pittsburgh couldn’t find a way to stop Benson on Georgia Tech’s fullback dive, a staple of coach Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense.
“It’s a little bit of everything, guys missing tackles,” said Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi. “… They can run the ball, especially if you give them 10 more minutes.”
Georgia Tech controlled the clock, holding the ball 35 minutes. The Panthers were successful on only 1 of 13 third-down plays.
“When you don’t move the ball against Georgia Tech, the way they hold the ball, you’re in deep, deep trouble,” Narduzzi said.
With the game tied at 7 in the second quarter, Marshall used a spin move to dodge Pittsburgh safety Damar Hamlin on an 18-yard run to the 1. Marshall scored on a keeper the next play. He had a 32-yard scoring run down the Georgia Tech sideline in the first quarter.
The Yellow Jackets overcame four lost fumbles, including two by Benson. Georgia Tech’s defense allowed no points on the four turnovers.
“If it weren’t for the defense, we wouldn’t have won this game,” Marshall said.
Benson lost his second fumble inside the Pittsburgh 5 midway through the fourth quarter. He had a 47-yard scoring run about two minutes later.
Pittsburgh (1-3, 0-1) made a change at quarterback, starting Ben DiNucci over senior Max Browne.
Seven Pittsburgh rushers netted only 37 yards on 20 carries.
The Panthers stayed close in the first half with a few big plays, including an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown by Quadree Henderson for a 14-14 tie. A devastating block by Damar Hamlin on Parker Braun helped Henderson find an open field.
Alex Kessman made a 55-yard field goal for Pittsburgh to end the first half.
Georgia Tech’s Quaide Weimerskirch scored on a 19-yard run in the third quarter — the longest run and first touchdown for the sophomore.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets’ top-ranked running game showed its depth and big-play ability. Perhaps most encouraging for Georgia Tech’s ACC outlook was the play of its defense. The Yellow Jackets allowed no points on four lost fumbles.
“I thought that our defense played really, really well today, especially in sudden-change situations,” Johnson said.
Pittsburgh: DiNucci showed promise on his first drive but for the most part looked like a first-time starter. The Panthers couldn’t generate a running attack to help the sophomore. Pittsburgh’s young defense was consistently frustrated by Georgia Tech’s option runs. Most of Benson’s yards came on power runs straight at the line.
“Our defense was just on the field too long today,” Narduzzi said.
DiNucci completed 12 of 19 passes for 110 yards with one touchdown. Browne took over in the fourth quarter and completed 10 of 15 passes for 89 yards.
Narduzzi said he will take a “status quo” approach on his quarterbacks “and find out who has the best week of practice and who gives us the best chance to win a football game.”
Whitehead, Pittsburgh’s strong safety, returned from a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. His 30-yard gain on an end-around run to set up DiNucci’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Quadree Ollison.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers return home to play Rice on Saturday.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets will have another home ACC game against North Carolina on Saturday at noon.