If you had to draw up a rubric for a Pat Narduzzi opener against an FCS team, I think it would look something like this:
A few key players held out of the game altogether, a plain-Jane game plan to show off as little of the scheme as possible for future opponents to scout, a general lack of energy and precision from his players and just enough big plays from the other side to turn the game into a nail-biter for the Pitt faithful.
Well, like in so many other ways, 2020 sure is different.
In a way that we have yet to see from a Narduzzi-led team, Pitt grabbed hold of a overmatched opponent and absolutely demolished them in a 55-0 rout.
The Pitt defense completely smothered the Governors, holding them to seven first downs and just 10 yards rushing on the afternoon, while the Pitt offense ripped and shredded them to the tune of six touchdowns on six drives. If not for Narduzzi wanting to get more players involved — more on that later — Pitt probably could have scored 100.
It was a strong statement from a team that has so often made the opposite one in these tune up openings, and Narduzzi said postgame that the difference was intentional.
“We talked all week just about coming out and making a statement,” he said. “I told the guys probably about a week and a half ago, maybe two and a half weeks ago, I guess when camp broke we started working on Austin Peay, that we were going to come out and make a statement.
“Since I’ve been here. I felt like we haven’t come out and exploded against anybody. I don’t want to say played down, but the big emphasis today was to come out and play up. We were going to show that we were a different football team and really make a statement to the country about who we are and what kind of weapons we have on really all three phases of the game.”
So Pitt showed a bit more of its offense than it has in the past, with Kenny Pickett hooking up with stellar freshmen Jordan Addison and Jaylon Barden and transfer DJ Turner for big passing plays.
“[Addison] is an explosive kid. I think he did a great job,” Pickett said after the game. “I think we’ve got more speed, like we talked about. Guys running by people, getting some separation. I think that will be a huge asset to our game.”
Addison has been talked about all training camp as a potential starter and a future star, but Barden has slid under the radar, making his inclusion in the game plan a concrete example of Narduzzi’s change in mindset coming into Week 1 of 2020.
“[Barden] has been doing a great job, as well,” Pickett siad. “Love playing with him. Tough kid. You ask him every day how he’s feeling, he’s 100% ready to go, just loves playing football.
“We had that play dialed up all week. There was a couple post shots that we had. When you get the call and you see the look that you want, we got the same look that we practiced. He just did his job and I just had to put it out there for him.”
Even after Pitt pulled its starters at the end of the first half, the Pitt defense shut the Governors down nearly completely and two big special teams resulted in two second-half scores.
“I think Austin Peay’s a good football team, but when we play up to our level, that’s what an opener should look like,” Narduzzi said. “Probably one of our biggest margins of victory since I’ve been here … I wanted to prove that this 2020 team was a different team and they really are.”
Pitt’s running back stats from the game were nearly comical, as the Panthers rotated all five scholarship backs through the mix.
Senior A.J. Davis started and had five carries for 24 yards on the first drive alone before yielding to his underclassmen. Sophomore Vincent Davis led the way with 11 carries for 43 yards and two scores. Freshman Israel Abanikanda had five carries for 26 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Daniel Carter scored on his first career carry and finished with 18 yards on four rushes. Todd Sibley, Jr. finished with four carries for two yards and a touchdown and also scored a second time after recovering his own blocked punt and returning it.
If you combined the numbers of Pitt’s five running backs, it was a heck of day: 29 carries for 113 yards and five touchdowns. But there certainly didn’t seem to be one guy pulling way ahead of the pack.
“I thought that they all did some good things,” Narduzzi said. “Vince Davis made some people miss. The running backs held onto the ball. It looks like Vince Davis had two touchdowns, but — it looks like he had the most carries. But Izzy was impressive. I thought AJ Davis was really good early.”
There are certainly some stylistic differences. Carter looks like he’s added to his already impressive frame. Vincent Davis scatted and scampered around Austin Peay defenders, seemingly at will. Abanikanda showed vision to go with his obvious physical speed.
But if Pitt is going to end up with a consensus top rusher, that will have to be decided another day.
COVID-19 PLAYS A FACTOR
Pitt held seven players out of the game due to COVID-19 protocols, but Narduzzi said he expects to have all seven players that sat out the game, including starting defensive linemen Keyshon Camp and Rashad Weaver, back in action for next Saturday’s game against Syracuse.
Other players that were not seen in attendance included freshmen defensive back Jehvonn Lewis, defensive end Emmanuel Belgrave, punter Cam Guess, cornerback Jahvante Royal and cornerback Hunter Sellers and redshirt freshman punter Jared Campbell.
Pitt is not releasing the results of its team COVID-19 testing to the public, nor does it plan to identify the players that were held out due to COVID-19 protocols.
Narduzzi said that despite missing seven players, Pitt was “not even close” to having to cancel the game. He did say that he needs full cooperation from his team going forward in order to keep that the case.
“That was really my message to our football team: You’ve earned the right to play one game, now earn the right to play two.”
Pitt’s depth on the defensive line did not seem badly impacted by the absences. Redshirt sophomore David Green started for Camp and redshirt junior Deslin Alexandre started for Weaver.
Narduzzi said that tight end Lucas Krull, who was held from the game with an undisclosed injury, could have possibly played, but the team decided to hold him out.
“He could have gone if we wanted him to,” Narduzzi said. “We chose to hold him and get him 100%. I didn’t want 99% Lucas Krull. I wanted a hundred percent Lucas Krull and he’ll be ready to go for the ACC opener.”
He seemed less sure about the status of starting wide receiver Taysir Mack, who Narduzzi said he “hopes” will be available for Syracuse.
Narduzzi did not offer an update on the status of defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, who left the game toward the end of the first quarter and did not return.
Other players that did not dress, but were in attendance, were wide receiver Will Gipson (lower body), outside linebacker Leslie Smith (lower body), offensive lineman Michael Statham (undisclosed) and Matt Altsman (undisclosed), defensive lineman Bryce Nelms (undisclosed non-football injury) and defensive back Gus Sunseri (undisclosed).
Two veteran Pitt players were dressed but did not see game action: wide receivers Tre Tipton and Jared Wayne. Narduzzi did not explain their absence.
Freshman Jaylon Barden started with Mack and Wayne missing at the X wide receiver position. Kyi Wright started for Krull.
GAME OF FIRSTS
A combination of factors, including the seven COVID-19 absences and the injuries, a blowout game and a blanket waiver for eligibility for the 2020 season led Pitt to empty its bench to a level not typical seen in the past.
Several of Pitt’s youngsters not only got their first game experience, but much, much more:
• CB AJ Woods: First start
• CB Rashad Battle: First game, first tackle
• DB Buddy Mack: First game, first tackle
• DB Judson Tallandier: First tackle
• DE Nate Temple: First game, first tackle
• DE Bam Brima: First game
• DE Dayon Hayes: First game, first tackle, first sack
• DT David Green: First start
• DT DeAndre Jules: First game, first tackle
• LB Bangally Kamara: First game, first tackle
• LB Wendell Davis: First start
• LB AJ Roberts: First game, first tackle
• OL Blake Zubovic: First game
• OL Matt Goncalves: First game
• PK Ben Sauls: First game, first extra point
• QB Davis Beville: First game, first pass
• RB Daniel Carter: First rush, first touchdown
• RB Israel Abanikanda: First game, first rush, first touchdown
• TE Kyi Wright: First game, first start, first catch
• TE Jake Zilinskas: First game
• TE Daniel Moraga: First game
• WR Jordan Addison: First game, first start, first catch
• WR Jaylon Barden: First game, first start, first catch
• WR Gavin Thompson: First game, first catch
• WR Solomon DeShields: First game
• WR Garrett Bickhart: First game, first catch
Getting that many players game experience might end up being the most positive factor to come out of the game, as the pregame uncertainty about who would be able to play certainly highlighted the need for quality depth.
“We had 70 different players play today and obviously some guys absent — we could have played more,” Narduzzi said. “But it was a great experience. We got a chance to get Davis Beville out there and Joey Yellen and some backups in there. I told them at halftime, this is an opportunity. You guys want to play more, show me something. …
“I thought defensively, we did some good things and we saw Dayon Hayes, our little hometown hero, come in there and get two sacks. One was a strip sack. So there was a lot of good things. I mean, we’ve got to look at that tape and maybe we got to find a place for Dayon to come in there and get a pass rush because he had a heck of a speed rush early — against their (second team), of course. … Bangally, at linebacker, kind of did some things out there. He’s got a little attitude to him.
“Offensively, it was good to get Goncalves out there, which I think we had some high hopes for. Owen Drexel. Some guys that haven’t played a lot of football here that got a chance to go in there. We’re going to evaluate it and make sure they get better next week because you may need everybody.
“Brandon George played a little fullback today as well. It’s a little package we have been working on. So Brandon George played both sides of the ball, played just about every special team, so he’s an asset for us.”
For Pitt’s starters, who almost to a man sat out the second half, it was a fun exercise in rooting on the youngsters that came in behind them at their position.
“Those guys are on their feet, cheering for me, so I feel it’s only right that I show my respect and my energy for them,” safety Paris Ford said. “I’m as hyper for them when they make a play as I am for myself. I love seeing those guys. Our young guys are definitely going to be good for the future.”
“It was awesome,” center Jimmy Morrissey said. “I was so excited, especially for Owen Drexel, my backup. He’s a great teammate, been a great friend of mine, too, these past for years. He works hard every day. He’s consistent. He really deserves reps out there and he’s done a great job. I’m sure you guys saw, too, he played really well in there.”