How has Pitt football fared against Heisman Trophy winners?

This coming fall, Pitt will face Heisman Trophy candidate and North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye. In 2022, Maye torched the Panthers completing 34-of- 44 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in leading the Tar Heels to a come-from-behind win over Pitt 42-24 in Chapel Hill and is one of the leading candidates to win the Heisman Trophy in 2023.

Pitt will also face another Heisman Trophy candidate in 2023 in Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman. Hartman, a portal transfer from Wake Forest, is also being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate, as well as Jordan Travis, quarterback for Florida State.

How has Pitt fared against those players in the year that they went on to win the Heisman Trophy? The last time Pitt faced a player that won the Heisman Trophy that season was Jameis Winston of Florida State in 2013. Winston led the 10th-ranked Seminoles to a 41-13 win at Heinz Field. Winston was brilliant completing 25-of-27 passes for 356 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions and a 252.2 quarterback rating. The 28-point margin of victory was one of the Seminoles closer games in 2013 as Winston led the Seminoles to a national championship that year.

Prior to that, Ohio State running back Eddie George was the last Heisman Trophy winner to play in Pitt Stadium in 1995. In about one half of play, George rushed for 121 yards in 24 carries as the eighth-ranked Buckeyes won easily 54-14. The real star of that game was Ohio State wide receiver Terry Glenn who had nine receptions for 253 yards and four touchdowns.

The last time Pitt defeated a player that went on to win the Heisman Trophy was in 1987 when the Panthers hosted and defeated Tim Brown and the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame 30-22. Pitt jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead as Brown had six receptions for 156 yards on the night. Craig Heyward rushed for 132 yards on 42 carries scoring two touchdowns for the Panthers against the Fighting Irish.

In 1986, the number one-ranked Miami Hurricanes came to Pitt Stadium led by that season’s Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Vinny Testaverde. In a virtual deluge, Testaverde completed 17-of-26 passes for 291 yards throwing four touchdowns with one interception leading Miami to a 37-10 win over the Panthers despite a sensational performance by Ironhead Heyward who rushed for 254 yards against the top ranked team in the country. 

The only time in the last 50 years Pitt faced a Heisman Trophy winner in a bowl game happened to be in the 1980 Gator Bowl when the third-ranked Panthers faced George Rogers and 18th-ranked South Carolina. The Panthers won easily 37-9 and held Rogers to 113 yards on 27 carries.

The ’70s saw Pitt face only one player on his way to the Heisman Trophy and that was in 1973 as the 20th-ranked Panthers faced sixth-ranked Penn State and John Cappelletti. Cappelletti gained 161 yards on 37 carries as the Nittany Lions prevailed at home 35-13.

The decade of the ‘60s was an entirely different matter as the Panthers faced a Heisman Trophy winner six times beginning with Syracuse and Ernie Davis in 1961. The Orange won at home 28-9 led by Davis’ 119 yards rushing on 22 carries and a rushing touchdown and a three-yard touchdown reception.

In 1963, Pitt, ranked number three in the country, faced 10th-ranked Navy in Annapolis, Maryland. Led by Roger Staubach, Navy prevailed 24-12 as Staubach was 14-for-19 passing for 139 yards and scored on a one-yard touchdown run.

The next season in 1964, Pitt would face another Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Notre Dame’s John Huarte. In front of 56,628 fans at Pitt Stadium, Huarte led the number one-ranked Fighting Irish to a hard-fought 17-15 win. Huarte threw for 212 yards on 9-for-21 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions.

The following season in 1965, Pitt again would face that year’s Heisman Trophy winner when they traveled to the west coast and faced sixth-ranked USC and Mike Garrett. Garrett rushed for 156 yards as the Trojans won easily 28-0.

In 1967, sixth-ranked UCLA traveled to Pitt and led by that year’s Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Gary Beban, the Bruins defeated the Panthers 40-8. Beban completed five-of-ten passes for 69 yards and ran for two touchdowns gaining 25 yards on 13 carries.

The Panthers traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to face the sixth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in 1969 and led by Steve Owens, the Sooners won 37-8. Owens rushed for 104 yards on 29 carries with three rushing touchdowns on his way to the Heisman Trophy.

Pitt’s done as well as one could expect against Heisman Trophy winners as most Heisman Trophy winners play on winning and outstanding teams.

One exception was in 1956 as the 20th-ranked Panthers hosted Notre Dame and their do-everything star Paul Hornung. In addition to handling the punting and placekicking duties for Notre Dame, Hornung had 13 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown, 48 yards passing, nine tackles on defense and an interception return of 24 yards. Hornung’s efforts weren’t enough though as Pitt defeated the Fighting Irish 26-13. Hornung would go on to win the Heisman Trophy despite Notre Dame’s 2-8 record.

Pitt’s success in the 2023 season will be heavily influenced by how Pitt plays against three of this year’s Heisman Trophy candidates: Drake Maye of North Carolina, Sam Hartman from Notre Dame and Jordan Travis from Florida State. The challenge will be for Pitt’s defense to ruin their Heisman Trophy chances.

Photo credit: Ken Lund on

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:

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