It’s hard to say that 1-3 Virginia Tech is a must-win game, but with a bye week coming up, Pitt needs to enter the week off with some momentum entering the back half of the schedule.
As was the case last week against No. 15 North Carolina, there are plenty of questions — offensively and defensively — that will need to be answered in pre-game, during the game and going forward. Here are some storylines to follow a few hours before kickoff.
Matt Goncalves Ruled Out for the Season
Pitt will be without its top offensive lineman for the remainder of the 2023 season.
Matt Goncalves has been ruled out for the 2023 season with an undisclosed injury, Pat Narduzzi announced Monday at his weekly news conference. He did not play in Pitt’s loss to North Carolina over the weekend after exiting in the fourth quarter of the loss to West Virginia.
“Obviously disappointed for our football team, but more importantly disappointed for him, but captain Matt Goncalves will be out for the year,” Narduzzi said.
“I’m sad for him, sad for his family. They’ll be at every game anyway because they’re so blue and gold and ‘Let’s go Pitt’ and all that. It’s nothing you expect. He’s in such good shape and such a tough dude and captain again. It’s a hit to our offense.”
It’s a tough blow for a Pitt offensive line that has struggled to find any consistency this season. And for Goncalves, who was named a captain before the season.
Best Chance to Unleash Rodney Hammond Jr.
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.
What’s Up With Bub Means?
If not for Gavin Bartholomew, and Rodney Hammond Jr. at times, the Pitt offense would be a black hole this season. 88th in scoring offense, 114th in total offense, 107th in passing offense, 89th in rushing offense.
And that’s bolstered by 45 points and 491 yards of offense against Wofford. Pitt is averaging 17 points and 259 total yards per game against Power Five opponents this season, which would be 122nd and 128th, respectively, in the NCAA.
Frank Cignetti Jr. has been uninspiring in his play-calling, offensive scheme and personnel decisions, Phil Jurkovec has been a detriment to his team and the offensive line has taken far too long to get rolling. And maybe the biggest breakout candidate of the summer has been a complete no-show through four games.
Bub Means — who the coaching staff pointed to as a dynamic playmaker in the summer — has just six receptions for 71 yards this season. He hasn’t stretched the field, he hasn’t scored a touchdown and he’s been struggling to make any sort of impact this season.
“I think we have to find more ways to get it to Bub and Konata and Gavin and Karter and all of those guys, but it ends up being, who are they covering? It’s a bad decision by the quarterback if he throws it to a guy because he likes him or thinks he’s gonna be open,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “You can’t think he’s going to be open, he’s either open or he’s not, and you have to go through your progressions as a quarterback.”
Pat Narduzzi Linked to Michigan State Opening
Michigan State officially fired head coach Mel Tucker for cause this week, which opened up an attractive head coaching vacancy in the Big Ten.
Potential replacements have been lobbied about since the news of Tucker’s suspension arose earlier this month, and Pat Narduzzi has had his name linked to the Spartans a few times. And he’s been named a candidate for the opening.
Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reported Thursday that Pat Narduzzi is a candidate for the Michigan State job, alongside Duke head coach Mike Elko, Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos, LSU defensive coordinator Matt House, Marshall head coach Charles Huff and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.
Pitt Appears to Have Found Its Next Starting Center
It seemed like Terrence Moore might get a chance last season when Owen Drexel went down in Week 2 against Tennessee.
Moore — then just a second-year freshman out of Massillon, Ohio — finished the game at center against the Volunteers, but when Pitt traveled to Western Michigan the next week, it was Jake Kradel who slid into the vacancy at center.
Kradel had started the first two games of the season at right guard, but he got the first crack at filling in for Drexel. And Moore, who had been listed as the backup center, received just 19 snaps as Kradel held onto the role.
Whether it was Drexel in 2021 or Kradel in 2022, Moore waited his turn. And it’s been nothing but a learning experience for the 6-foot-5, 305-pound pivot.
“I wouldn’t say frustrating,” Moore said Tuesday after practice. “I’d say coach Borbs is always gonna put the best five guys out there, we’ve had a lot of good guys at center from Owen Drexel to Jake Kradel, so I’ve just been learning from them to make sure that when my time was to come, I was ready to get in there like last Saturday.”
Kenny Johnson Knows He Belongs in Pittsburgh Now
Kenny Johnson was used to stepping onto a field — any field — and being the best football player there. In his case, it’s not bragging to say that high school was too easy. It was like a field day every Friday night. But he learned that it doesn’t last forever.
It was a humbling experience. It took two and a half months for Johnson to finally feel like he belonged in Pittsburgh after moving from York, Pennsylvania in June.
“Our defense is just so good,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “So, you go against one of the best defenses, and you’re running against them and you’re like, ‘I’m not getting any separation, I’m running the wrong routes.’ It took me longer than I wanted to get adjusted.”
But Johnson, whose last act as a high schooler was to win MVP honors in the Big 33 game (an All-Star event between the best high school football players in Pennsylvania and Maryland), did adjust. The biggest difference between Day 1 and Day 10 or 20 or 30 wasn’t anything he was doing though. It was the support of his new family.
“The confidence that my teammates had in me, and my coaches had in me,” Johnson said. “I have a village behind me, the whole team supports me, the coaching staff, so it’s easy when you have those guys supporting you.”
VT Head Coach Brent Pry Offers Thoughts on Pitt
Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry had some interesting things to say about Pitt prior to their matchup this Saturday night in Blacksburg, Va.
Pry spoke to members of the media on Tuesday and spoke on his team, their performance so far, and of course, about the Panthers. When someone asked Pry what he saw in the Panthers ahead of their meeting, he had some thoughts.
“They are physical,” Pry said. “They don’t do a whole lot. They’re pretty simple. I think everybody in the business kind of knows, they’re a little bit like Iowa that way. This is what they are defensively. This is who they are. They’re not going to change, but they’re going to be very good at what they do.
“That’s complemented by their commitment to the run game. Just staying on schedule and playing complimentary ball. I think he’s done a nice job there. He’s done a nice job recruiting. Despite a couple of injuries, they’re bringing a good football team in.”
North Carolina Star Drake Maye Was Simply Better Than Pitt Pass Rush
Drake Maye threw for just under 300 yards and scored three touchdowns against the Pitt defense, and it still kind of felt like the Panthers got off easy.
That’s what happens when a quarterback accounts for over 400 yards and five touchdowns the season before, I guess. Pitt schemed up a plan to slow Maye, hit him a few times and held him under 300 yards through the air, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“We brought some of our favorite pressures that we could have got home, but he is so fast with getting the ball out of his hands,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “It’s like — there’s some quarterbacks that are like really slow getting it out of their hand and they freeze and don’t know what to do. This dude doesn’t freeze; this guy can make a shot, and he’s going to make a heck of an NFL quarterback just because he can see it.”
Maye completed 22-of-30 pass attempts against Pitt, taking just about 2.6 seconds after the snap to get the ball out of his hand on average, and he was still dragged down by three recorded drops by the UNC wideouts. It was a masterclass.