Pamela Smith | Visual Editor
The Panthers kicked off their 2021 football season in dominant fashion, with a 51-7 drubbing of the UMass Minutemen on Saturday. Since making the jump to the FBS nearly a decade ago, the Minutemen haven’t had a winning season yet and lost 11 straight games before last weekend’s game. Knowing that, judgments based on Saturday’s game should be taken with a grain of salt, but here are my five takeaways from Pitt’s demolition of UMass.
1. The front seven lived up to the hype
Out of camp, Panthers players and coaches considered their front seven to be among the nation’s best, and they certainly looked the part.
The Minutemen struggled to muster up any sort of offense — entering the locker room with just three first downs in the first half. The Panthers stifled the UMass rushing attack in particular, holding them to 1.6 yards per carry and a total of 42 rushing yards on the day.
Pitt sophomore defensive lineman Calijah Kancey said postgame of the UMass offensive line that “those guys’ eyes got big out there … and I just took advantage of that.” Kancey posted one of the Panthers’ five sacks and six tackles for loss.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi has preached about the depth of his team for months, and this unit has plenty of it.
Seventh-year senior linebacker John Petrishen flew under the radar, given the position group’s depth. But he proved Narduzzi’s analysis to be true — leading the Panthers with two sacks on the day.
“We all help each other,” Petrishen said. “We can always count on different people to step up.” The Pittsburgh Central Catholic alum did just that on Saturday, proving how deep the group truly is.
No matter the opponent, the Panthers’ front seven will be a force to be reckoned with.
2. Lucas Krull provides a dynamic that the Pitt offense hasn’t delivered in years
Since Scott Orndoff caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns in Pitt’s upset win over Clemson five years ago, there have been just three occasions where a Panther tight end had at least four receptions in a game. Senior tight end Lucas Krull had the fourth on Saturday.
The former Florida Gator hauled in four receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett spoke on the different dimension Krull adds to the offense, saying, “We haven’t had that in my time here.” Krull proved to be a playmaker in the seam, opening up other windows for Pickett to throw into.
“It really opens it up,” Krull said postgame. “We have a lot of playmakers … a lot of guys that can do a lot of special things with the rock in their hand.”
Krull’s presence allowed Pickett to spread the wealth around the field. Seven receivers ended the day with at least three receptions. To put it simply, the addition of Krull raises the ceiling of this roster.
3. Izzy Abanikanda should see the majority of the workload at RB next weekend
In early August, Pat Narduzzi listed Brooklyn native Izzy Abanikanda as the team’s top running back. So it came as a surprise when redshirt senior tailback A.J. Davis Jr. trotted out with the starters for the team’s opening drive.
Davis was one of six different running backs to carry the ball on Saturday, none of which recorded more than eight carries.
“We are just trying to find out what we got,” Narduzzi said. “We can’t play four, five backs all year.”
Next weekend in Knoxville, the Panthers will likely try to find that bell cow back.
Abanikanda, who carried the ball seven times for 30 yards and a touchdown against UMass, should be first in line to seize that opportunity.
After the sophomore ran for 77 yards and a touchdown on just six carries in Pitt’s Blue-Gold game in the spring, he drew comparisons to the former NFL All-Pro rusher Le’Veon Bell.
“He’s just been running so patiently,” Narduzzi said. “He almost looks like Le’Veon Bell — running, the vision and finding holes.”
For a team that struggled to run the football the previous two seasons, you have to give the most reps to the player with the most potential. Next week against Tennessee, look for Abanikanda to get a chance to take the job and run with it.
4. The kicking situation could make or break the season
Almost a week before the season opener, Narduzzi described the kicking competition between sophomore walk-on Sam Scarton and redshirt first-year Ben Sauls as a “51-49” battle.
“It’s really close. It may be a game-day decision,” Narduzzi said. “It may be an alternating kicking thing. I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
Narduzzi named Scarton, the Hickory High School alum, as the starter prior to the game. The walk-on made his lone field goal attempt, a 35 yarder, but also missed an extra point. Sauls did not attempt any field goals, but was two for two on extra points. The freshman also took kickoff duties for the Panthers.
But Narduzzi did not provide much clarity about the ongoing battle between the two placekickers.
“We missed an extra point … We can’t miss those, those can become critical points next week in Tennessee,” Narduzzi said. “I thought they both kicked well, we will look at it.”
The staff needs to identify who they are most confident in and give them consistent reps, because going into conference play with an alternating kicking situation spells trouble.
5. Run blocking is still a major concern
If you looked at the stats and saw that Pitt rushed for 222 yards and five touchdowns, you would assume that the Panthers’ offensive line looked impressive in the run game. But they did not, as they struggled to open up holes for the majority of the game, continuing a carry-over trend from last season.
The story the stats tell is that the Panthers were just much better than their opponent. In last season’s opener against Austin Peay, the Panthers rushed for six touchdowns. Yet that did not tell the story of the remainder of the season. In fact, it was quite the opposite as the Panthers finished bottom three in the ACC in rushing offense.
Pitt could find themselves in the same predicament if the run blocking does not improve, because they will still struggle to run the ball against good teams.