BLACKSBURG, Va. – Much has been said and written about how explosive Pitt’s offense has been this season. And for good reason too. The unit – orchestrated by coordinator Mark Whipple and powered by quarterback Kenny Pickett – had scored 40 points or more in each of its first five games of this college football season.
And while Pickett and company were sharp at times on Saturday at Lane Stadium, Pitt’s defense put forth an impressive and throwback performance to make the 28-7 victory possible.
The Panthers defense played arguably the best it has all season long. Pat Narduzzi’s side totaled three sacks, grabbed an interception and stifled and frustrated the Virginia Tech Hokies all afternoon. At halftime, the Hokies had less than 100 yards of total offense on their home turf.
When the dust settled on a windy fall day at Lane Stadium, Pitt was the leader on the scoreboard, and its defense was a big reason why. The Panthers improved to 5-1.
“It’s not easy to come into this environment and beat them,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I’m just proud of our kids. I love that locker room. Our kids play hard. They’re coachable. Credit goes to those guys. They played hard. They made all the plays today.
“We’ve got to eliminate penalties – which really drives me nuts – but besides that, it was a great day on offense, defense and special teams.”
Virginia Tech is often the loudest stadium in the ACC when it blasts Metallica before kickoff. But after Pitt pushed around and pummeled the Hokies, most fans dressed in maroon and orange quietly shuffled out of the stadium in the fourth quarter.
“I absolutely love it. This is why we play the game, to come to environments like this and get a win like we did today,” said Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis. “There’s no feeling like it.”
Pitt’s defense has played well at times this season, holding UMass and New Hampshire to just seven points apiece. But against Power 5 opponents, the Panthers had been inconsistent on that side of the ball. They allowed Georgia Tech to score 21, and Tennessee to score 35. Then, of course, there was that abomination of a performance against Western Michigan, in which they allowed the MAC side to score 44 points at Heinz Field.
“That was a bad, bad pill to swallow,” defensive tackle Calijah Kancey said of the Western Michigan loss. “We think about that loss every time we line up against someone. And then, we just punch them in the mouth.”
The Panthers have clearly put the Western Michigan defeat behind them, and they’ve improved by miles on defense since that game last month. Saturday marked the first time in Narduzzi’s tenure that Pitt held an ACC opponent to seven points or less. Paul Chryst was the head coach the last time Pitt did it, beating Syracuse 30-7 at home in 2014.
For Virginia Tech, it was the first time in Justin Fuente’s tenure as head coach that the Hokies had been held to less than 10 points at home. In Frank Beamer’s final season in 2014, the Hokies lost at Lane 30-6 to Miami.
“I think we really game-planned well,” Dennis said. “We came in with the mindset that we can get after these guys, and we can do what we do very well. I think that’s what we did here tonight and we had a great outcome.”
Dennis led the Panthers in tackles on Saturday with eight. All afternoon, he had Kancey parked in front of him on the defensive line. A redshirt sophomore from Miami, Kancey notched his third sack of the season when he bulldozed Hokies’ running back Jalem Holston into the lap of quarterback Braxton Burmeister for a loss of eight yards on a third down. Entering this game, Kancey had the highest grade of any interior defensive lineman in the ACC with a mark of 90.4, per Pro Football Focus.
“Calijah – he’s a beast, man,” Dennis said. “I love to see him in front of me, even though it’s a race to the ball. Him getting sacks and doing everything he can, he does it so well and I applaud him for that.”
Offensive line paved way for balanced offense
As the defense rattled the Hokies, Pitt’s offense scored more than enough points to capture the win.
What was key to the Panthers finding success on offense was balance and protection. The offensive line kept Kenny Pickett clean for most of the game – allowing just one sack – and paved the way for a rushing attack that totaled 208 yards. It was third time this season Pitt had rushed for more than 200 yards, but the first time this year against an opponent that wasn’t UMass or New Hampshire.
“The running backs and the o-line, I think they took a step in the right direction today. Consistency is key. I think they’ll keep getting better,” Pickett said. “(The offensive line) did a great job. They kept me clean, and especially in the run game they were really impressive in the fourth quarter.”
The majority of Pitt’s rushing yards came from Israel Abanikanda, a sophomore from Brooklyn, New York. He ran 21 times for 140 yards, marking a career-high for himself in both carries and yards.
“Izzy Abanikanda is a beast,” Narduzzi said. “He’s strong, he’s physical. I love watching him run the football… When No. 2 is in there, it’s a different ball game.”
Against Western Michigan, Abanikanda ran just once for negative-one yards. He put the game in his rearview quickly – like the rest of the Panthers have – and has churned out yards since. He was especially important on Pitt’s final offensive drive, which lasted 16 plays and covered 76 yards. Pitt didn’t score at the end of it, but they grinded away 11:28 of clock in the fourth quarter, greatly limiting Virginia Tech’s chances at a comeback. On that drive, Abanikanda ran 11 times for 72 yards. And most crucially, he didn’t fumble.
“I just knew I had to be patient and just keep working,” Abanikanda said. “(The offensive line) was big time… It felt great. It felt like the coaches were confident in me.”
While the running game clicked, Pickett and the passing attack were sharp too. The sixth-year quarterback completed 22-of-37 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 40 yards and a score. Pickett was charitable with the ball, completing passes to eight different receivers.
A Heisman hopeful, Pickett now has 21 passing touchdowns and just one interception on the year.
Clemson now the focus
The win at Virginia Tech was an important one for the Panthers. Pitt hadn’t won in Blacksburg since 2015, and Pickett was 0-2 in Lane Stadium as a starter. After the game, most of the Panthers were in a good mood and were more than happy to spoil the Hokies’ homecoming.
“Yea, it feels great. We had this one circled for sure,” Pickett said. “It meant a lot to everybody who’s here to come in and get a win.”
But Pitt’s focus is quickly shifting to Clemson. Next Saturday at Heinz Field, the Panthers will host the 4-2 Tigers. Dabo Swinney’s side isn’t currently ranked in the AP Poll and aren’t the behemoth this year that they usually are – but still. It’s Clemson. And the Panthers are eager for the chance to beat the Tigers in front of their home crowd.
“I think we’re going to play hard again. We got some unfinished business with Clemson,” Kancey said. “They did some things to us that we want to make up for.”
Clemson has won its previous two meetings with Pitt, topping the Panthers’ 52-17 last season in South Carolina, and beating them 42-10 in Charlotte in 2018 in the ACC Championship game. But Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence are gone. Clemson is still one of the top teams in the ACC, but they’ve shown signs of weakness this year. They’ve shown they can be defeated.
Pickett has said previously this season that he came back to Pitt to play in big games. Saturday’s victory at Lane Stadium was one of them. And they don’t get much bigger than what lies ahead for Pitt on Oct. 23 at Heinz Field.
“They’re a heck of a team. I know everyone’s talking like they’re not Clemson – but they’re still Clemson,” Pickett said. “They’re a great team. We’re going to have our hands full this week.”
Said Narduzzi: “Pitt fans better come out strong. It’s going to be an epic game in Pittsburgh.”