Panthers flip season opener script, pound Austin Peay

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By Henry Jackson, Staff Writer

As Pitt’s football team ramped up to an uneasy, mid-pandemic season opener, questions still surrounded the team dubbed as a possible ACC dark-horse competitor. Unfortunately for Austin Peay, no answers were to be had.

The Panthers crushed the Governors in a 55-0 Saturday victory, putting on an absolute clinic for the empty, eerily quiet yellow seats of Heinz Field and giving their opponents little to celebrate on the lonely bus ride back to Clarksville, Tennessee.

[Photos: Pitt football vs. Austin Peay]

Besides asserting its dominance over a clearly outmatched team, Pitt’s performance marked a clear break with previous season openers. Veteran Pitt fans can recall nail-biters against FCS opponents such as Delaware or Youngstown State, where starters were relegated to the sideline and second-stringers struggled to the closing seconds. This year was different — the Panthers took the field with purpose, and played as if their black-and-red-clad opponents were an ACC program like NC State or Louisville instead.

Such a break with tradition was no accident. In head coach Pat Narduzzi’s sixth season, the Panthers are looking to climb above the relative mediocrity defining the Narduzzi era and make noise on the national scene. Saturday’s performance was indicative of Pitt’s newfound determination, and the aggression the team showed can be expected to carry over.

“Since I’ve been here, I felt like we haven’t come out and exploded against anybody. I don’t want to say played down, but the big emphasis today was to come out and play up,” Narduzzi said. “We were going to show that we were a different football team and really make a statement to the country about who we are and what kind of weapons we have in all three phases of the game.”

As part of playing up, the Panther’s starting lineup was full of, well, starters. With the exception of seven players who were sidelined due to COVID-19-related protocols — an issue likely to shadow every team this season — fans were able to get a fairly clear idea of how the team will look for the remainder of the season.

On offense, senior quarterback Kenny Pickett continued to occupy his starting role, passing for 277 yards and a touchdown while also proving his agility on the ground with a diving, pylon-tipping touchdown run. First-year wide receivers Jordan Addison and Jaylon Barden along with redshirt senior DJ Turner proved their worth in the air attack. The trio tore up the Governors’ defense for a combined 179 yards.

The ground attack was less telling, with Narduzzi cycling five running backs against Austin Peay’s reeling defense. All five backs played well, but none seemed to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

That said, Narduzzi spoke highly of his starting running back, senior A.J. Davis, and also seemed impressed with the efforts of sophomore Vincent Davis and first-year Israel Abanikanda.

The offensive line met expectations — staying on assignments, avoiding penalties and creating a strong push off the line of scrimmage.

Post-game, Pickett said he thinks his teammates’ natural athleticism will help transform what was an often ineffective attack last season.

“I think we’ve got more speed, like we talked about,” Pickett said. “Guys running by people, getting some separation. Obviously, I think that’ll be a huge asset to our game.”

On the other side of the ball — where Pitt plays its finest — the Panthers were dazzling. Their star-studded defensive line stood immovable, giving up only 1 total yard rushing, and rarely giving the Governors’ redshirt junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall more than two or three seconds in the pocket. The backfield proved equally impregnable, staying on assignments and holding the hapless Governors to only 136 yards in the air.

But perhaps the most positive outcome of the game was the roster depth Narduzzi could use. A total of 26 Panthers saw their first college playing time against Austin Peay — a much better debut for inexperienced players than mid-season crunch time. Such experience may be vital down the road as Pitt attempts to negotiate a COVID-19-infested season where coaches are forced to utilize depth to field teams.

Ultimately, Saturday’s performance proved Pitt is taking the 2020 season with a seriousness unseen in past years. That said, it’s a little bit early to come to any conclusions. Austin Peay is an undermanned, cellar-dwelling FCS program, and is hardly indicative of the ACC opponents Pitt will have to face.

Seasoned college football fans know early blowouts can still lead to disappointing seasons, and the real test begins with conference play. Even in a season as strange as 2020’s, one thing is certain — the competition will grow stiffer and the going will get tougher, and until then, Pitt football still has something to prove.

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