If Israel Abanikanda hadn’t gone off against Virginia Tech last season, if the game was just wiped from record books, VT would’ve allowed just 1,161 rushing yards (at about 116 yards per game) in 10 games last season.
Solid numbers. It would’ve been good for fourth-best in the ACC. But unfortunately for the Hokies, Abanikanda ran for 320 yards in a record-breaking performance, part of a 326-yard showing on the ground. 43 carries accounted for 11% of the carries VT faced, 326 yards accounted for 22% of the rushing yards allowed and six touchdowns accounted for 40% of the rushing touchdowns allowed last season.
It was a historic performance, breaking a record set by the legendary Tony Dorsett, but it really showed just how vital Abanikanda was to Pitt’s offense last season.
He’s certainly been missed so far this season. Abanikanda racked up 38 carries of at least 10 yards and 19 carries of at least 15 yards last season — both ranking near the top of college football. Pitt has 19 runs of at least 10 yards and eight carries of at least 15 yards as a team through for games this season.
A 38-yard rumble from C’Bo Flemister in the first quarter against Cincinnati earlier this month — a season-long rush attempt — resulted in a missed field goal attempt. No points. Those explosive touchdowns have evaded Pitt this season.
If there’s any opponent to get the rushing attack back on track this season, it’s VT.
VT has allowed 212.5 rush yards per game this season, which is good for 122nd in college football (and second-worst among all Power Five teams). All four of the Hokies’ opponents have loaded up blockers and just cut through the Hokies’ defense.
Old Dominion ran the ball 41 times for 201 yards in the season opener. Purdue racked up 179 yards and three touchdowns on 46 carries, Rutgers racked up 256 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries and Marshall racked up 214 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries. Aside from Old Dominion — all losses.
Marshall’s Rasheen Ali gashed the VT defense for 174 yards and two touchdowns — ripping off a 56-yard touchdown in the first half and a 61-yard gain in the second half.
There’s a path to success for a Pitt offense that has quite a few question marks entering Saturday night. It remains to be seen who will line up under center against the Hokies, although it will be Phil Jurkovec if he’s healthy, and there are injury concerns on the offensive line even with Matt Goncalves and Ryan Jacoby ruled out for the season.
Pitt ran for just 113 yards against No. 15 North Carolina last weekend, but the run game was abandoned entirely in the second half as the score got away from the Panthers. Rodney Hammond carried the ball a season-high 14 times for 83 yards and a touchdown.
For whatever reason, Hammond hasn’t been able to get those touches this season. Both Pat Narduzzi and Frank Cignetti Jr. have called for more carries, for all of the running backs, but Pitt has been unable to really establish the run game this season. Narduzzi wants to feed Hammond against VT.
“I hope so, as long as he’s doing it right,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “We felt like he ran the ball well last week, so yeah, he’s going to get the workload to start off. And C’Bo’s been really good, too. I like when C’Bo is in there.”
The script was clear early. Establish the run, lean on Hammond and take time off the clock. Hammond capped a 13-play, 78-yard opening drive with a 7-yard touchdown. And Pitt followed up with a 7-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Daniel Carter touchdown drive.
Hammond ran the ball nine times for 64 yards and a touchdown on the first two drives, both resulting in touchdowns, but he carried the ball just five times throughout the course of the game. It was very similar to his usage falling off against WVU.
“I think it’s a little more circumstantial in terms of how the game unfolds,” Dave Borbely said Tuesday after practice. “That’s what I would say. We kind of got out of rhythm in the second half. I think we were down three scores, so we got out of rhythm a bit with the run game and had to throw it a little bit more. But every game is different and the games may dictate that and most of them unwind differently. It’s a game of situations, and you have to be able to win the situation.”
Pitt has a stable of backs at its disposal in Hammond, Flemister and Carter. The coaching staff has rotated the three throughout the early portion of the season, but it hasn’t worked out. Hammond needs more carries. He needs more than the 14 he received against UNC.
If there’s a game to really lock in, bring Karter Johnson in as an inline blocker and just let Hammond build momentum, it’s arrived. Hammond has proven he’s capable of carrying the load — look at Syracuse (28 carries for 124 yards and a touchdown) and UCLA (25 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns).
He was a workhorse when Israel Abanikanda missed time last season. In three games that Abanikanda didn’t play (including the Backyard Brawl) last season, Hammond racked up 69 carries for 292 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and five touchdowns — adding six receptions for 63 yards.
In two true starts, against Syracuse and UCLA, Hammond showcased an ability to be a bell cow, dominating rush attempts (67% of rush attempts against Syracuse and 69% of rush attempts against UCLA) and serving as the engine of the offense. Both of which were Pitt wins, too.
Hammond’s ability to cut and make defenders miss is hard to replicate. He’s a very different runner from Abanikanda, but he has the potential to make a very similar impact on the football field. Where Abanikanda was vertical, Hammond’s is lateral.
Hammond likens himself to a do-everything back. If you need speed, he’s got it. If you need power, he can do it. He embraces the contact, putting his shoulder down to pick up a few extra yards in the process. He felt good moving the ball against WVU, and he wanted more against UNC. It’s time now against VT.
“I mean, we got a plan, we really got a plan for me, so whatever they need me to do, I’m gonna be ready to do it,” Hammond said last week. “I didn’t really notice what was going on, but I know we got a plan for me, so I’m not worried.
“I’m a team player. I’m not really frustrated at all. So, whatever we gotta do to win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Narduzzi pointed to the offensive line being better over the last two weeks, after falling on its face against Cincinnati, and it’s actually gotten better with new faces stepping into the fold. Terrence Moore and Ryan Baer are in line for bigger roles this season. And Narduzzi just wants to see continued growth.
The chance for growth comes against a Virginia Tech defense that has struggled to tackle this season, with 30 missed tackles, according to PFF, and as the defense as a whole is allowing over five yards per carry, the defense is having a hard time getting on running backs until they’ve reached the second level.
Hammond isn’t exactly a home run hitter in the mold of Abanikanda, but it’s a chance to continue building rapport with the young offensive line and put together a true breakout performance.