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UNC HC Mack Brown: Pitt Has Best Running Back in the Country



Pitt football running back Israel Abanikanda

North Carolina likes to throw the football, that much is clear, and UNC head coach Mack Brown sees how Pitt likes to run the football.

Drake Maye, UNC’s redshirt freshman starting quarterback, has been a revelation under center this season. He’s a Heisman darkhorse who has thrown for 2,200 yards and 24 touchdowns (adding 378 yards and three touchdowns on the ground) through seven games this season.

“I think Pat (Narduzzi) would rather run it every time and get the game over within about an hour and a half,” Brown said at UNC’s weekly press conference. “That’d be his mentality, and I understand. I was raised like him in the old days. But I’m very impressed with that young man.”

That young man being Israel Abanikanda, of course.

While Maye leads the ACC in passing yards by a wide margin, Abanikanda leads the ACC in rushing yards by a similar margin. With 959 yards (6.1 yards per attempt) and 13 touchdowns on 157 carries, Abanikanda has been one of the very best running backs in the country. He’s been the engine that’s fueled Pitt’s season.

“Pat loves to run the ball and be physical,” Brown said. “They’ve got the best running back in the country. He’s leading the nation in rushing.”

Abanikanda isn’t quite leading the country in rushing. He’s fourth, second when it comes to Power Five running backs, but he is first in rushing touchdowns, all-purpose yards and total touchdowns.

When looking at Abanikanda, it isn’t as if he’s seeing one particular player. He sees a lot of both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, two NFL running backs, across the field.

“He’s so thick, and he’s really hard to tackle,” Brown said. “I remember when we were in the Rose Bowl, (we, Texas) played Mike Hart at Michigan, and Mike was that way. They’re smaller and stocky but so fast and quick. And he’s got really good patience and he breaks so many tackles, and when he breaks a tackle, he goes for explosive plays.

Hart, a four-year starter at Michigan in the mid-2000s, faced off against Brown’s Texas team in the 2005 Rose Bowl. Hart was coming off a 1,455-yard freshman campaign, and while his Wolverines lost 38-37 in the Rose Bowl, Brown saw Hart’s impact. He sees the same impact with Abanikanda.

Even in an offense where there isn’t a rushing threat at quarterback, Brown said he respects the threat that Pitt’s offense poses with running backs like Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr. and Vincent Davis.

“When you’ve got running backs like they do, you don’t need quarterbacks running,” Brown said. “Those guys are really good and that’s Pitt’s offense. Kenny Pickett ran some, but most of it was not by design, it was scramble. And Slovis can do the same stuff.”

With Abanikanda leading Pitt’s offense, two games removed from a 320-yard rushing performance in which he broke Tony Dorsett’s 47-year-old program record, Brown acknowledged that level of dominance. It doesn’t happen if a player isn’t supremely talented. He pointed to UNC’s own rushing effort against Virginia Tech.

With an “older offensive line” and Abanikanda in tandem, North Carolina has certainly noticed Pitt’s offensive threat.

UNC has allowed the most total rushing yards (1,304 yards), highest carry per attempt (4.7 yards) and most rushing yards per game (186.3 yards) this season to opposing teams. It’s a defensive unit that also ranks dead last in points per game (32.4).

If Pitt is to upset No. 21 North Carolina, it will come from Abanikanda.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 year ago

So Mack Brown noticed that we cannot throw the ball….great.

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