It hasn’t been easy in any game this season for Pitt.
Not against bitter foe West Virginia in the opener or now-No. 3 Tennessee right after. Western Michigan and Rhode Island were surprisingly game against a defending Power Five champion. Losses to Georgia Tech and Louisville were back-breakingly painful results in which Pitt looked to be the better team for large stretches.
It took Israel Abanikanda breaking decades-old records to put away Virginia Tech.
At 4-3 (1-2 ACC), Pitt has failed to live up to both preseason expectations and goals. It’s a roster that’s laden with talent, offensively and defensively. Both units — the offense especially — have struggled at times this season. The latest loss only makes last season look more like a fluke.
It’s time to take a long look in the mirror and find out just what is going on.
Kedon Slovis Isn’t Cutting It
It seems like every week is the continuation of wondering whether or not Kedon Slovis will finally put together a complete performance and lead the offense.
If there was ever a time for Pitt to come out and showcase a passing attack that effectively fed its playmakers and pushed the football downfield, it would’ve been after the bye week before heading into the second half of the season against Louisville.
If anything, it only got worse for Slovis and the passing game.
Slovis threw for a season-low 158 yards and two interceptions on 16-of-29 pass attempts. 112 of those yards came in the first half.
Pat Narduzzi said he never considered pulling Slovis, which isn’t surprising considering his history. But when Slovis either can’t run the offense or Frank Cignetti doesn’t have the trust in Slovis to run the offense, something has to give.
“It takes 11 guys,” Narduzzi said after the loss. “When you win, Kedon does a great job and when you lose, everyone wants to point the finger at the quarterback. We don’t point fingers in the locker room, you guys can point fingers all you want when you talk to the media, but we need some help.”
Yes, Pitt didn’t always help Slovis to the fullest extent possible. The wide receivers weren’t always in sync and the offensive line was shoddy at times, but Slovis was the biggest culprit in the loss.
Narduzzi has made his support of Slovis very clear, but Pitt can’t just keep running it back and expect Israel Abanikanda to run for 300 yards. It comes down to what Pitt wants to do.
If the eye is in the future, Nate Yarnell is the guy. If Pitt wants to change things up, Nick Patti is the guy. Slovis hasn’t been getting it done.
Execution and Play calling Go Hand in Hand
Jared Wayne was only targeted three times against Louisville, but he hauled in both of his catches to move the chains. Wayne executed with the chances he was afforded.
“It just comes down to execution,” Wayne said. “We go in with a game plan every week, it’s our job to trust that game plan and make it happen — make the plays happen.”
Narduzzi agreed with him.
“You gotta go out and execute,” Narduzzi said. “You gotta go out and make plays, and you gotta make plays. That’s how you change momentum.”
In the first half, Pitt outplayed Louisville. In five drives, excluding the kneel to end the first half, Pitt drove inside the Louisville 30-yard line four times. And came away with just a touchdown.
Slovis threw two back-breaking interceptions that a player with his skill and experience should know better than to attempt, and Rodney Hammond Jr. fumbled on Pitt’s sixth consecutive wildcat attempt.
Pitt’s offense moved the football in the first half, but mistakes killed drives and kept points off the board. It didn’t change Narduzzi’s mind as to who should be quarterback.
Slovis threw for 46 yards in the second half. The second half featured three punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble. And a field goal off an A.J. Woods interception return to the Louisville 47.
The second half featured poor play calling for a quarterback who wasn’t trusted to make plays. And Slovis wasn’t alone. The wide receivers were ho-hum, the offensive line struggled as the game wore on and only Abanikanda truly put together a good day offensively.
There was a lack of execution and a lack of imaginative play calling.
Israel Abanikanda for Heisman — If Pitt wasn’t 4-3
Abanikanda set up Pitt’s first touchdown with a 37-yard catch and run, spinning off a tackle to set up shop inside the red zone. And he took a direct snap through contact for a 12-yard touchdown the following play.
And when Pitt needed a play in the fourth quarter, trailing by a touchdown, it was Abanikanda’s 36-yard run that got Pitt across midfield and in a position to score.
With 129 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries and 50 yards on three receptions, Abanikanda accounted for 55% of Pitt’s total offense. It was his fifth 100-yard effort in seven games and fourth effort of at least 150 yards of offense.
In the country, Abanikanda ranks:
- 157 carries — 7th
- 959 rush yards — 4th
- 137 rush yards per game — 4th
- 13 rush touchdowns — 1st (tied)
- 1,296 all-purpose yards — 1st
- 185.1 all-purpose yards per game — 1st
- 14 total touchdowns — 1st
Abanikanda almost single-handedly won the Virginia Tech game and gave Pitt a chance against Louisville. I honestly don’t know where Pitt would be without Abanikanda in the lineup. He’s been the best player offensively by a wide, wide margin.
The fact that Pitt is 4-3 will automatically disqualify Abanikanda from Heisman hype, but he’s been that good.
Defense (Maintains It Didn’t) Wears Down
Pitt limited Louisville to just 17 points, just seven through three quarters, and largely limited the impact of dynamic threat Malik Cunningham.
Cunningham threw for 122 yards and two touchdowns (and an interception) on 10-of-22 passing attempts and racked up just 46 yards on the ground. Pitt held Cunningham and Louisville’s offense in check for three quarters.
Louisville had just seven points and 192 yards through three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Louisville racked up 17 points (which includes a defensive touchdown) and 121 yards — 33 of which came on a trick play to Cunningham for 33 yards.
“I thought they played solid,” Narduzzi said. “7-point ball game. Usually, when you give up 17 points, you’ve got a chance to win. The defense gave up 17 points today and seven of it was on a trick play.”
The defense didn’t rack up huge sack or tackle for loss numbers, just two sacks — one sack from SirVocea Dennis — but the unit contained Cunningham as it set out to do.
“There’s always things you can clean up, and then again, I feel like we played well,” Dennis said after the loss. “Minor mistakes here and there, but I feel like we played really well. Played together really.”
It felt like the story of the season for Pitt’s defense. Three strong quarters and wearing down in the fourth. In Pitt’s three losses this season, the defense — largely — has played well.
Pitt’s defense limited Tennessee to just three second half points, forcing three punts, a fumble and a field goal in the second half. In the loss to Georgia Tech, Pitt’s defense held GT to just three field goals through three quarters — before giving way in the fourth quarter.
As Dennis said after the loss to Georgia Tech, he reaffirmed that the offensive struggles didn’t have anything to do with the fourth quarter.
“No. Why? Because I feel like we condition for it,” Dennis said. “And I think we did that since camp really, like, we know at the end of the day that we’re going to be in certain situations. We understand that some things will happen, so we have to be ready for that.”
Dennis, who recorded six tackles (three solo), two tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup, said he doesn’t care if he plays 100, 200 or 300 snaps, he just wants to be out on the field.
“We had them where we wanted them, we just had to go out and capitalize,” Dennis said.
It’s Time to Look in the Mirror
“This is a very good football team, I’ll say that” Wayne said in the visiting team media room after the loss.
There is certainly an identity that Pitt wants to adhere to this season. A strong rushing attack and defense that limits opposing offense on the ground. There are pieces that work well, but as a whole, this season has been a disaster.
Pitt came into Louisville needing to win six games in a row to get back to Charlotte for the ACC championship. Instead, Pitt lost 24-10 and effectively lost any hope of winning the Coastal division — let alone the entire conference.
At 4-3 (1-2 ACC), Pitt is done. Are there two wins left on the schedule?
- At No. 21 North Carolina
- No. 16 Syracuse
- At Virginia
- At Miami
The days of hoping for an ACC title appearance have been replaced by wondering whether Pitt is good enough to maintain bowl eligibility this season. Where does the blame fall? Everywhere.
Slovis was poor throughout the game. Cignetti called a poor second half, which wasn’t helped by an offensive line that got worse as play wore on and a disorganized, unprepared offense as a whole. It was another game that Pitt let slip through its fingers.
Abanikanda’s 179 yards weren’t enough to mask serious offensive issues — in terms of execution and play calling.
There are still five games left this season, and with back-to-back ranked matchups, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pitt fall below .500 before the final stretch of Virginia, Duke and Miami.
The expectation of winning 10 games in a weak ACC before the season has evaporated. But Pitt’s players still do care.
“You just have to really make sure the guys their heads up and just go out there and play football,” Dennis said. “At the end of the day, we still want to win. We still want to win every week.”
There are still five games left this season. It hasn’t been easy, but Pitt now faces a crossroads. What happens next?