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Five Takeaways: ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Guides Pitt Over Western Michigan



A win is a win, as Erick Hallett said following Saturday’s game against Western Michigan at Waldo Stadium.

Pitt flew back home to Pittsburgh early Sunday morning with a 34-13 win over Western Michigan, a bit of redemption following last season’s debacle at what-was-then Heinz Field, and Pat Narduzzi felt like it was exactly the kind of performance he wanted to see from his team.

“First of all, I’m just proud of our entire football team,” Narduzzi said Saturday night. “We talked about the next man up, as you guys know, and our guys played next man up football today.”

With Kedon Slovis on the sideline and Nick Patti back in Pittsburgh, Pitt turned to young Nate Yarnell Saturday night, and he didn’t disappoint in his very first college action.

Nice Orchestration from Nate Yarnell 

While Pitt lost a scout team quarterback over the weekend, it gained a new option — one with present and future potential — in the starting equation.

Kedon Slovis was cleared to play Saturday against Western Michigan, but Narduzzi didn’t want to play him if possible. It came down to Yarnell and Derek Kyle, and Yarnell’s consistency throughout the week earned him the starting job — his first actual competitive football since 2019 — against the Broncos.

It was an offense that relied heavily upon Israel Abanikanda to haul the load, but Yarnell stepped up when called upon, led the offense efficiently and effectively and earned the 34-13 win over WMU Saturday.

“What a special day for him,” Narduzzi said Saturday night. “He led the guys in the fight song and couldn’t be more proud of the performance he put out there. Does it surprise me? No, I’ve seen that guy for a year and a half on scout team. You look at a guy who hadn’t been through spring ball, was our fourth-string quarterback coming into this game and he was cool as a cucumber. You just talk about relaxed.”

Yarnell completed 9-of-12 passing attempts for 179 yards and a touchdown. It was efficient, he didn’t turn the ball over and he even found the end zone. Not bad for a quarterback whose last start came back at Lake Travis High School in Nov. 2019.

“I don’t think he was nervous not one bit,” Narduzzi said. “Which was shocking because I was damn nervous.” However, that wasn’t exactly the case.

“No, I was (nervous),” Yarnell said Saturday night. “I was definitely nervous, but as soon as that first snap — all that goes away and all you’re focused on is playing football.”

It was a special night for Yarnell. He played his first meaningful football in some time, earning the starting job after starting the week as the fourth-string quarterback on the depth chart, and his celebration with Frank Cignetti Jr. — the traveling fans chanting his name — is something he’ll never forget.

“It is a memory I’ll always remember. A memory I’ll always remember. It was really special. Just knowing that whoever we play this week, the game plan we had, I was just really excited to get out there on the field knowing coach Cignetti had my back. It was just a culmination of all those things.”

ACC Leading Rusher Israel Abanikanda 

With 302 yards on the ground this season, Israel Abanikanda is the leading rusher in the ACC so far this season.

It’s come about as Abanikanda has managed to stay healthy, earn the lion’s share of touches out of the backfield as Rodney Hammond Jr. has been injured himself and showcase his blend of speed, agility and power that is tough to replicate.

“Izzy’s been Izzy,” Narduzzi said. “He’s our starting tailback. He’s a special player, he almost popped one, he’s just running hard. They’re blitzing probably 70% of the time. The offense did a great job, amazing job, really blocking movement. Proud of those guys.”

With Yarnell easing his way into the game Saturday night, Abanikanda shouldered a heavy workload against WMU. With 31 carries against WMU, he broke a week-long career-high set against Tennessee last weekend. Over the last two games, he’s racked up 287 yards and two touchdowns on 56 carries (5.13 yards per attempt).

Abanikanda’s 131 yards and a touchdown (to go along with 75 yards on four kick returns) were paramount to helping establish Yarnell and guide Pitt to a win Saturday. However, he made sure to thank everyone on the offense who has allowed him to produce.

“I really want to thank my o-line, receivers and quarterback because if it wasn’t for them, none of that would be happening,” Abanikanda said Saturday night. “And I thank everybody in the running back room as well.

“I’m just going to keep going every week.”

With Hammond’s availability in the next few weeks uncertain, Abanikanda likely won’t have as heavy a workload against Rhode Island this week, but ACC play is right around the corner. And the ACC’s leading rusher will be needed to kick off conference play.

Offensive Line Consistency Improves Against WMU

Even with Owen Drexel not making the trip to Kalamazoo Saturday, suffering from his lower-body injury sustained in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, Pitt’s offensive line didn’t miss a beat against WMU.

Jake Kradel slide inside to play center, Blake Zubovic slid into the right guard spot and the rest of line remained the same. And all five guys played every snap against WMU. And all in all, it was a pretty solid performance.

Terrence Moore is the backup center, who filled in for Drexel to finish the Tennessee game, but Dave Borbely opted for the experience of Kradel — who made his second career start at center.

“It was just the combination that coach Borbely liked,” Narduzzi said. “They did a great job. Jake played center before, so that was easy. We had a lot of trust and faith in Blake Zubovic. The guy that might be the unsung hero is Ryan Jacoby. That guy was pancaking guys out there.”

Jacoby took 31 snaps Saturday, all at that inline, sixth lineman spot, and Narduzzi was very pleased with his swingman’s performance. Jacoby actually wore the 84 jersey Saturday too.

Pitt ran for 238 yards against WMU, with Abanikanda leading the way, but Vincent Davis added 84 yards and C’Bo Flemister added 28 yards. It was a strong day on the ground, which was the emphasis offensively, and it started up front.

Erick Hallett’s Growth Personified 

The strides made by Erick Hallett over the last year have been monumental. If anything, Saturday’s performance against WMU was just a confirmation of such.

“A win is a win,” Hallett said Saturday night. “We’re in college football, wins are hard to come by. So, knowing that we lost to them last year, especially on our home turf, that always stings a little bit. We came down here and did out get back.”

It was nearly a flawless day for Hallett as he allowed just two catches for 30 yards on five targets. He also picked off Jack Salopek twice, including an interception in the end zone that left the Broncos scoreless.

After last season’s performance against WMU, it’s been a long road for Hallett, but he’s come into his own over the last six games dating back to last season especially.

Hallett’s last six games? 25 tackles (17 solo), one tackle for loss, four interceptions, two pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.

“Erick Hallett’s a football player,” Narduzzi said. “Go all the way back to last season, and he’s a football player. That was a great one in the end zone, took really seven points off the board for them, it was a turning point. But really the biggest one was Marquis Williams on that pick-six. … That’s what great defenses do, they find a way to make plays.”

Williams, who left the game early with an undisclosed injury, picked off Salopek in the first quarter, jumping a route intended for Corey Crooms and dashing 24 yards back to the end zone for the game’s opening touchdown.

It was a strong all-around performance from Pitt’s defense, limiting WMU to just 180 total yards of offense — 44 of which came on a double pass play touchdown. And the first six points came off a muffed punt and a defensive pass interference call.

Defensive Depth

Pitt’s depth has been tested all season long because of injuries, and Saturday was no different.

Williams, Habakkuk Baldonado and Nate Temple all picked up knocks Saturday, and that’s after Deslin Alexandre traveled but didn’t play and Dayon Hayes didn’t travel. It’s a deep unit defensively, but Pitt would obviously prefer not to have to dive too deep into the depth chart.

“You look at guys out there,” Narduzzi said. “Nahki Johnson was out there at the end playing football. I think we’ve got some good football players. Obviously, you’d like to have your starters out there, but you find a way to get it done one way or another.”

Johnson and Elliot Donald, two players viewed as potential cornerstones for future Pitt defenses, each played three snaps Saturday.

Javon McIntyre played five snaps, P.J. O’Brien played three snaps and Pitt’s young depth players got some action late in the contest.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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On Campus Stadium Please
On Campus Stadium Please
1 year ago

Yarnell, QB1 for the rest of the season and future!

Ed Rose
Ed Rose
1 year ago

You are smug condescending douche

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