PITTSBURGH — Tony Dorsett’s 303-yard performance against Notre Dame had held for 47 years, since a 34-20 Pitt victory over Notre Dame at Pitt Stadium in 1975. It finally fell Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium.
Pitt needed every yard of Israel Abanikanda’s 320-yard performance Saturday, and all six of his record-tying touchdowns, to pick up a 45-29 win over Virginia Tech. It wasn’t a pretty game, with Pitt nearly blowing a double-digit second half lead, but when Pitt needed a play, Abanikanda was there.
A win is a win, and Pitt enters the bye week with a 4-2 (1-1 ACC) record. The early season goal of a national championship is gone, but there is still a path for Pitt to make it back to the ACC championship in December. And it relies heavily upon Abanikanda and the run game.
It’s a Run-First Offense, Confirmed
No offense to former Desert Mountain High running back Max Walker, but Kedon Slovis has never seen a performance like Israel Abanikanda’s on Saturday afternoon. And boy, did he see it.
“It’s nice, I told one of our assistants that I have the best seat in the house,” Slovis said Saturday after the game. “I kinda see the play develop, I saw on that last one — Marcus kinda pulling up and working to the backer and I was kinda thinking, ‘Izzy, hit it right, hit it right.’ And he hits it perfectly.”
Abanikanda hit his hole perfectly and ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run to really seal a 45-29 win over Virginia Tech. It was his sixth touchdown on the afternoon — tying Norman Budd’s 112-year-old school record for rushing touchdowns in a game — and put him just five yards off Tony Dorsett’s 47-year-old school record for rushing yards in a game.
Of course, Abanikanda would break that record with a six-yard rush on Pitt’s next offensive possession — pushing the new school record to 320 yards on 36 carries.
“Oh no,” Abanikanda said Saturday after the game. “That’s amazing. I was happy when I heard about that. I was real happy. I was honored, and I thank my o-line. First off, I wanna thank God first and my family and my o-line and my whole team — running backs, quarterbacks, defense too for getting the offense off the field. Even my coaches, just thank everybody.”
It was a performance where Abanikanda said he didn’t have to put Pitt on his back to pick up the win, he just did what he had to do, but he put Pitt on his shoulders. Abanikanda has been Pitt’s offense all season long, and it’s time to call it for it what it is. A run-first offense.
“We like to run the ball,” Jake Kradel said Saturday after the game. “Just run the ball. Last year we passed the ball all the time, we did really well, Kenny was a Heisman finalist, and now this year, hey, we’ll do what we’re gonna do. If we’re gonna pass it 70 times like we did last year, we will, but we’d like to run it 70 times. That’d be nice. Whatever coach calls, we’re gonna run.
“I would say (we’re a run-first offense), I think so, that’s one thing we try to pride ourselves on, just run the ball first, open up the passing lanes and see what happens.”
Is Kedon Slovis Ever Going to Appear?
What’s going on with Kedon Slovis?
Slovis completed 15-of-28 pass attempts for 170 yards and an interception against Virginia Tech. It’s a stat line that’s eerily similar to his first three and a half quarters against Georgia Tech last week.
“We’ll figure it out,” Pat Narduzzi said Saturday after the game. “We’ve got to get him — make him better. We’ve got to make him better as coaches, so we’ll look into that. I’ve got some ideas, and we’ll figure that thing out.”
We’ll figure it out. That’s not encouraging when Pitt is now officially at the halfway point of the season. Pitt’s offense has emphasized the use of screens, check downs and a general disregard for airing it out.
Slovis only attempted three passes more than 20 yards downfield, completing one to Jaden Bradley for a 37-yard gain, and he was just 3-of-8 when attempting a pass more than 10 yards downfield. It’s not as if Slovis didn’t have receivers open either. He was just hesitant to push the football downfield.
Want an example?
On a 1st-and-10 early in the third quarter, set up at the Pitt 44-yard line, Jared Wayne broke open on a deep crossing route, which Slovis saw. However, Slovis hesitated too long and decided to check down to Karter Johnson in the flat for a 14-yard gain. A nice gain but indicative of Slovis’s hesitation to throw the ball deep.
“It’s one of those where after the fact, you’re kinda kicking yourself. I saw it unfold, and as a quarterback, you kinda have a time clock, you’ve got progressions —There’s a deep cross progression, we’ve got a post with the deep cross in the flat, and I kinda got to my footwork with where you hit the post, kinda reset on it, and I was just taking a while really because I thought that DB kinda held him up a little bit. Wish, just looking back, I’d just reset one more time and let it fly.”
It was just one miss in a season in which Slovis hasn’t been able to push the football downfield. Slovis said he hopes to be able to use the bye week as a way to clean up what Pitt hasn’t excelled and reaffirm its offensive identity.
It’s very clear now, if it wasn’t already, that Pitt is Izzy Abanikanda’s team.
Despite the Win, Not a Good Game for Pitt
Pat Narduzzi said that Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech was “probably the best 60 minutes we’ve put together as a team,” after the game.
It was actually the best 60 minutes that a running back has put together in Pitt history.
Abanikanda’s pure dominance, one of the best individual efforts in college football this season, hides a lot of issues that arose against a poor Virginia Tech team.
The passing game still isn’t clicking, the defense allowed Grant Wells and an offense that was second-to-last in the ACC to rack up explosives, accumulated nine penalties for 76 yards, averaged just 33.7 yards per punt and had one blocked for the second time this season. It was a sloppy performance, but it was a win.
“I just love the way our kids hang in there, continue to fight and believe,” Narduzzi said. “We talked about feeding off each other, and the offense is scoring, the defensive is going three-and-out in that second half. There were just some great things going on.
“Again, it wasn’t just a total blowout, but the score looks like it at the end, but our kids just kept playing and fighting, and I was excited about just the way they responded to adversity in the game.”
A win is a win, and Pitt shouldn’t lament a win the rest of the way this season, but it certainly wasn’t a game in which Pitt should hang its hat on.
Injuries Continue to Pile Up, Relief Coming?
SirVocea Dennis and Habakkuk Baldonado didn’t finish the game against Virginia Tech this week, and it’s starting to feel like no matter how many players Pitt gets back healthy, a couple more will leave each week with an injury.
Rodney Hammond Jr. dressed and warmed up before the game, his first time dressed since the season opener, and Narduzzi expects to have him and a few other missing pieces offensively back for the Louisville game in two weeks.
“I think we’ll have some guys back,” Narduzzi said. “Rodney Hammond will be back. Pregame, I’m like, ‘Dude, you ready to go?’ He went through pregame. He looks like he’s ready to go. Hopefully we’ll get two starting offensive linemen back. Hopefully Konata will be back. Konata has been good the last two weeks.”
With Hammond and Mumpfield back at the skill position, a load off Abanikanda’s steadily worked shoulders, the “two offensive linemen” figure to be Carter Warren at left tackle and Owen Drexel at center — two veteran presences that missed the Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech matchups.
With the bye week coming up, players like Hammond, Mumpfield, Baldonado, Dennis, Warren, Drexel and any with bumps and bruises should be able to rest up ahead of the home stretch of ACC play.
Pitt Still Largely Controls Its Own Destiny
The loss to Georgia Tech hurt, but with the weakness of the ACC Coastal, there’s no reason why Pitt shouldn’t have aspirations of making it back to the ACC championship game.
Pitt is 1-1 in the ACC. Georgia Tech is 2-1, if they win out, Pitt can’t control that. But UNC is 2-0, Duke is 1-1, along with Miami and Virginia. It was a bounce-back week in the win column, and it was a much-needed win. But there’s still a lot of work ahead.
“It’s huge,” Kradel said. “When you can go into the bye week 1-1 in the ACC, control your destiny the rest of the way, we’ve got six more games. Just go 1-0 each week, and we’ll be where we need to be in December.”
Of course, Pitt still has to win these games. There hasn’t been any indication over the last two weeks that Pitt has put the pieces together yet, but Pitt still has its way forward. The bye week will be crucial in getting healthy and trying to figure out a few key offensive and defensive issues.