Five Takeaways: Lessons to be Learned from Pitt’s Win Over West Virginia
SirVocea Dennis approached the podium following the Backyard Brawl with a smile on his face, and he asked if he’s been on the stage enough to make an opening statement.
“All I’m going to say is the Backyard Brawl, that’s a good name because, boy, that was a brawl tonight.
“West Virginia played their hearts out, but so did we, so I tip my hats to them — even though that’s something us Pitt guys usually do. I wish them good luck on the season.”
In the wake of such a supercharged renewal of the Backyard Brawl, lifted to a 38-31 victory by M.J. Devonshire’s fourth quarter interception return touchdown, Dennis’s grace contrasted starkly with his vicious on-field demeanor. But, like he said, it truly was a brawl at Acrisure Stadium Thursday night.
It was a brawl that broke the all-time sporting attendance record in Pittsburgh history, with 70,622 fans in attendance, and after erroneous reports that West Virginia could have 75% of the stadium attendance, Pat Narduzzi made sure to emphasize that the large contingent of Pitt fans was pivotal in winning the first Backyard Brawl in 11 years.
“That place was electric,” Narduzzi said. “Pitt fans showed up, like, big-time. Was kind of real upset the night before when we heard there was going to be 75% West Virginia fans, which I knew ESPN had some bad facts. But they disrespected our fans and our fans showed up. They were unbelievable all day today so I thank them first of all because they were critical in the victory.”
It was a victory, yes, a hard-fought, back-and-forth victory, and Narduzzi knows his squad has a lot to clean up before Tennessee travels to Pittsburgh next weekend, but Pitt did what it needed to do. It won a rivalry game against West Virginia and started the season off with a win. A good WVU team, Narduzzi said.
So, what are some takeaways from Thursday night’s game?
John Morgan’s New Gear
When Deslin Alexandre went down in the second quarter Thursday night, it looked like he might have broken his arm. He still might’ve, but it appears that Alexandre avoided a major injury. And the moment he returned to the sideline, he found John Morgan.
“I just looked at him for encouragement,” Morgan said. “At the end of the day, as soon as he came on the field, came back on the sideline, he said, ‘Listen, man, it’s time for you to do your job and take over. Do the things you’ve been doing all through camp, all through spring ball.’ I felt like it was never a drop off.”
In a game where M.J. Devonshire sealed the game with a pick-six, and steady play throughout, Morgan was Pitt’s best defensive player. He racked up four tackles, three tackles for loss and a strip-sack.
Morgan pointed to the three-headed monster of himself, Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado, and with the stage set against WVU in the Backyard Brawl, his performance Thursday night was exactly what he envisioned when he returned for his last season at Pitt.
Pitt’s defense was up-and-down Thursday night, but when it mattered most on the final WVU drive of the game, following the Devonshire pick-six, Morgan said that’s what the team wanted.
“That’s the moment you watch on film in January, and you’re saying, ‘If we get this moment, we have to do this to seal the win. That’s when you put the target on your back.’ If they get the ball back, it’s do or die now.
“If you keep getting pressure and pressure, you’re going to get there. So, pressure is good for us. At the of the day, if we’re causing pressure, that means (J.T. Daniels is) looking around — I call it looking for ghosts.”
After a senior season in which Morgan compiled 27 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble, it appears that Morgan still has another gear to unlock. He’s big (6-foot-2, 265 pounds), strong and has that emotional edge to be channeled on the football field.
If Morgan is able to emerge as a true game-changer, that will give Pitt’s defense another gear too. Especially if Alexandre is forced to miss any time.
Kedon Slovis Has Potential
The stats don’t tell the whole story. Slovis’s stat line of 308 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-24 passing attempts looks pretty good on paper, but it looked much, much less inspiring on the field.
Slovis clearly has the arm talent, an NFL-caliber arm. But the decision-making and processing — and just general comfortability in the offense — have some room to improve.
WVU’s defense was credited with five sacks against Slovis, and while Dante Stills, Jared Bartlett and crew did keep the offensive line consistently busy, Slovis played himself into at least three sacks.
He sometimes held onto the football too long when his initial read wasn’t there, he tried to do too much when simply throwing the ball away would’ve been the better play and it took some time to get into rhythm. But he also led Pitt to a game-tying, 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
A dump off to Israel Abanikanda for the 24-yard game-tying touchdown was simple, but it was what Pitt needed. Slovis worked the field on the drive, hitting Rodney Hammond, Konata Mumpfield, Gavin Bartholomew and Abanikanda with well-thrown footballs. It was a debut that could’ve been better, but the potential is there. And the final drive was what Narduzzi was looking for from his new quarterback.
“I think he was late with some of the passes, but he had a heck of a game and made the plays when he needed to,” Narduzzi said. “You can see he’s accurate with the football. He had some mistakes, whether he didn’t bring a guy into motion one time but we had two guys across on a dig and had too many people in the hole there. Should have been some motion there. Just little details, openers and nerves, big crowd, rivalry game. We’ll clean a lot of those things up.”
It was the first game of the season, Slovis’s first game at Pitt, and it came in one of the biggest rivalries in college football. It’s clear there was a feeling out process.
“I think there’s always times in the first game of the year as an offense you’re trying to find your identity,” Slovis said. “But we’ve got a lot of experience, not only as players but coaches, I wasn’t worried about finding rhythm. I think we found it toward the end of the game.”
There isn’t a lot of time to continue to feel things out, not with Tennessee coming into town next week, but it’s a talented offense. It will click. Slovis had some struggles Thursday night, but he’s too talented — the offense is too talented — not to click.
Wide Receivers Do Cause Some Chest Pains
When Narduzzi said on Monday that Pitt’s wide receiving corps gives him chest pains, he wouldn’t elaborate. Well, I think we saw that Thursday.
Jared Wayne was his consistent self, hauling in three of five targets for 89 yards — including a key 64-yard catch and run to set up a touchdown. Konata Mumpfield flashed with 71 yards on five receptions, showing good chemistry with Slovis.
And Bub Means. Means hauled in three recpetions of his own for 30 yards, but he also dropped a potential deep shot touchdown from Slovis and literally just dropped the football after a beautiful juke move.
“(The wide receivers) did a great job, and we missed some shots,” Narduzzi said. “Bub has made those plays so many times in practice. We had one, you know, probably on Monday or Tuesday, like beautiful (catch), and we just didn’t make as many plays as we needed to. We have to make a couple shots and loosen them up and when you don’t make those, they are not scared of it.”
Narduzzi was happy with Wayne and Mumpfield’s play, but it’s clear there’s another level to unlock. It goes hand-in-hand with Slovis’s continued adaptation to the offense.
Jaden Bradley only had one catch, Gavin Bartholomew only had one catch and Jaylon Barden was held off the board. Hammond and Abanikanda were both productive out of the backfield, but with an offense that was still being felt out, a deep unit of receivers wasn’t fully unleashed.
That too will also change.
WVU’s CJ Donaldson came out and gashed Pitt’s defense for 125 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. A true freshman tight end.
Needless to say, with a 190-yard night on the ground for WVU, Narduzzi was unhappy.
“I’m hot, okay. I’m hot,” Narduzzi said. “That doesn’t usually happen. I’m not happy. I’m not happy about our run defense. We’ll get it cleaned up and see again. We have two young outside linebackers playing their first game. SirVocea was good inside, but we’ll clean that up. That’s a fact. I’m in charge of that.”
WVU’s 190 yards would’ve been the most yards allowed on the ground in a game last season, which is, like Narduzzi said, unheard for a defense that allowed well under 100 yards per game on the ground last season. Even before Alexandre, one of Pitt’s best run stuffers, left the game, WVU’s zone scheme gave Pitt problems.
And with two new outside linebackers flanking Dennis, Bangally Kamara and Shayne Simon, it’s a learning curve to fit Pitt’s defense. There’s an emphasis to get after the quarterback, but sometimes lost in the aggressive style of play from Pitt’s defenders is just being where you’re supposed to be, filling the right gaps. It’s a work in progress with the younger linebackers.
“We have some young guys in there,” Dennis said, “or some new guys on our defense, that need to understand what’s going on, what’s happening and how other teams try to attack our defense.
“We had a lot of ups and downs. We gotta clean stuff up, and I think those guys will get it coming soon. Those guys are smart, they wanna play football, they’re athletic. We just gotta fix some things, and after that, we’re just trying to make a run.”
Narduzzi wasn’t at all happy with Pitt’s run defense, but WVU’s offense provided a stiff test and an important lesson. Narduzzi promised change, Dennis is an adept coach on the field and linebackers coach Ryan Manalac has a chance for a big lesson before him.
Rodney ‘Hot Rod’ Hammond Jr.
Abanikanda started the game for Pitt, and his slow start led to a lackluster 15 yard performance on the ground, but once Hammond entered in the second quarter, it was clear he found a rhythm.
With 74 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries and 55 yards on two receptions, he was Pitt’s most consistent offensive threat all night.
“I was ready,” Hammond said. “I was ready the whole time, so it wasn’t a problem.”
“I feel like I had a lot steam built up. Going against my defense every is tough, I’ve got the best defense in college football, so they prepared me to get ready for this first game. I’m looking forward to going forward the rest of the season.”
Hammond was listed as Pitt’s No. 2 running back on the initial two-deep depth chart, and it’s clear he’ll continue to hold a big role in the offense.
Abanikanda had a tough day on the ground, just 15 yards on eight carries, but he did score a crucial fourth quarter touchdown through the air. And he told Narduzzi after the game that he will be better.
“It’s great when the kids are telling you, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it good enough. I wasn’t good.’ But Rodney came in there, and he runs hard,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a bull and that’s no surprise to the locals.
A one-two punch of Izzy and Hot Rod is very, very exciting.
Don’t expect Hammond Saturday. Concussion protocol and all.
Hammond’s injury was to his right ankle, not a concussion.
Wv should have won
haha, we could say that every game… fact is they didn’t… its a tough loss, I get it, but it doesn’t change anything.
If that ball that flubbed into the air at the end of the first half doesn’t land in the WVU receivers hands then I think pitt is up 10 at half and it could have turned into a blowout, so you can play that game both ways.
Cignetti was brought here to install a balanced offence. He has installed a high school level running game. MY gosh, we could not run at all.
This guy is old and has no clue what is going on in the modern era of offense.
West Virginia has better running schemes than we do.
Florida State has good running schemes.
This old fashion hand off and zone block does not work against D-1 defensive fronts.
I love Narduzzi. I love Underwood. But the rest of this offensive coaching staff is terrible. (and everyone knows it)
Typical Pitt fan. Pitt fans are incredibly hard on their teams. Enjoy the win, expect them to get better the second game. H2P!
Patti needs a whole lot of reps with the starters. We need to let Slovis “potential” develop.