PITTSBURGH — If anyone thought Pitt’s offensive scheme was going to change against Virginia Tech after the debacle that was Georgia Tech last weekend, they would have been mistaken.
But luckily for Pitt, Israel Abanikanda put together a performance against Virginia Tech that illustrated exactly how to be a running back in college football.
Abanikanda racked up 320 yards and six touchdowns on 36 carries, breaking Tony Dorsett’s school record for rushing yards set in a single game in 1975 and tying Norman Budd’s school record for rushing touchdowns in a game set in 1910. It was a day in which Abanikanda almost single-handedly carried Pitt to a 45-29 victory over Virginia Tech at Acrisure Stadium.
Kedon Slovis threw for 165 yards and an interception on 14-of-26 passing attempts, Jaden Bradley led Pitt with 61 yards on four receptions and Pitt’s defense forced two turnovers, but it was all about Izzy Abanikanda at Acrisure Stadium Saturday.
Pitt’s offensive scheme in the first half against Virginia Tech seemed eerily similar to how Pitt opened against Georgia Tech last weekend, with short screens, dubious play-calling and drops plaguing the offense, but there was a difference.
Israel Abanikanda, while maybe not fully healthy, was fully involved in the offense.
It took Pitt making a few easy throws, quick hitters along the boundary, to even pose a threat vertically, and that’s all it took to open holes that Abanikanda was able to take full advantage of. Abanikanda struck on touchdown runs of 38 and 17 yards in the first half, racing through the Virginia Tech defense with explosive second level speed.
Pitt only managed 181 first half yards, but Abanikanda accounted for 109 of those yards and both touchdowns. And if it wasn’t for Abanikanda, it would’ve been a very bleak showing in what was expected to be Pitt’s chance to show a revamped, refocused offense.
It wasn’t all on the offense either, as penalties, turnovers and a poor defensive showing against the pass and the run were a problem in the first half.
A 5-yard Malachi Thomas touchdown rush was set up by roughing the passer and defensive pass interference calls, a Will Ross 18-yard field goal cleared the uprights after a goal line stand — which came after a couple of defensive penalties, including another DPI on Hallett — and a 19-yard Keshawn King touchdown was set up a Kedon Slovis interception which bounced off Jaden Bradley’s hands.
It was a sloppy half of football, which came after a sloppy game of football against Georgia Tech last week, but Pitt entered the halftime break with a 17-16 lead courtesy of Ben Sauls’ 47-yard field goal late in the second quarter.
The second half started out as more of the same for Pitt’s offense, the Izzy Abanikanda Show powering Pitt to any sort of success offensively. Abanikanda scored his third touchdown of at least 15 yards early in the third quarter, following some nice downfield blocking from Jake Kradel and Matt Goncalves for a 29-yard touchdown to push Pitt’s lead to eight.
Slovis operated a bit more effectively on Pitt’s next offensive possession, using his check down reads to move the ball downfield and even hitting Gavin Bartholomew over the middle of the field, and Abanikanda capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown — his fourth of the afternoon.
Pitt had a chance to stretch the lead late in the third quarter, already up by 15, but with a 4th-and-3 from the Virginia Tech 35, Slovis took a deep shot to Bub Means, which was broken up. It was a decision that would come back that would not come back to haunt Pitt, which was because of the defense’s fourth quarter clamp job and Abanikanda, of course.
It took VT three plays to drive 65 yards in response, capping the drive with a 43-yard toss to Da’Wain Lofton in the end zone to make it a 31-23 game.
If the offensive inconsistency wasn’t enough, Sam Vander Haar’s season took another turn as his punt attempt was blocked after Vander Haar blocked a slightly high snap. He picked up the ball, attempted to punt it and had the punt block, which Virginia Tech recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was stuffed, but Pitt’s lead evaporated to just 31-29 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech appeared to be on the way to possibly take the lead, Grant Wells hitting Smith over the middle for a first down right at midfield, but John Morgan punched the football free and Shayne Simon recovered it. Abanikanda took the first offensive snap 29 yards down the sideline, took a late hit and then turned a play outside and walked into the end zone from 10 yards out.
Abanikanda, for good measure, ripped off an 80-yard rushing touchdown through the heart of the Virginia Tech defense, pushing Pitt’s lead back to two scores.
Pitt was able to hold for a 45-29 victory over Virginia Tech, and it would not have been possible without a Herculean effort from Abanikanda.
Pitt improved to 4-2 (1-1 ACC) with the win, and with a bye week next weekend, Pitt will resume play against Louisville in Louisville in two weeks.