Preview | Pitt prepares for early season road test against Tennessee Volunteers

The+Pitt+Panthers+will+match+up+against+the+Tennessee+Volunteers+this+Saturday+at+Neyland+Stadium+in+Knoxville.

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The Pitt Panthers will match up against the Tennessee Volunteers this Saturday at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt and Tennessee have played one another just twice, with Pitt having won both contests, in the two programs’ storied histories. Although the programs haven’t clashed in 38 years, they are forever linked by one man — Pitt’s former head football coach, Johnny Majors.

Majors inherited a team that went 1-10 in three straight seasons when he took over in 1972. Just four years later, the Pitt Panthers were national champions and Tony Dorsett was the Heisman Trophy winner. He turned Pitt football into a nationally respected program, paving the way for more top-tier teams throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

Although he recalls it being the most difficult decision in his career, Majors departed Pitt in 1977 to coach his alma mater, Tennessee. He went on to coach the Volunteers for 16 seasons and had a 116-62-8 record with the program en route to three SEC Championships.

Majors passed away in June 2020, having made a considerable mark on both programs in his career. In his memoriam, the game between the Panthers and Volunteers has been anointed “The Johnny Majors Classic,” and head coach Pat Narduzzi said he looks forward to honoring the man who elevated Pitt football to what it is today.

“I’ve had a relationship with Coach Majors from his time spent here at Pitt, the days he’s been here to visit the university he loved,” Narduzzi said. “I think it’s a great thing in honor of the Majors family. We’re excited about that.”

Here’s what to watch for on Saturday.

Will Israel Abanikanda see more playing time this weekend?

It seemed like not a single day of training camp went by without someone praising sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda. But come kickoff in week one, Abanikanda wasn’t the starter. In fact, he only ran the ball seven times against the Minutemen.

Was this to keep him fresh? To keep him a secret? Or did senior A.J. Davis Jr. simply outperform him in camp? Pitt fans will certainly find out this weekend. If Pitt wants a win this weekend against an SEC opponent, Narduzzi is going to have to throw everything he’s got at the Volunteers. But the seventh-year head coach still says he’ll continue to rotate running backs ahead of Saturday’s contest.

“You’re going to play two or three backs,” Narduzzi said. “You’re going to keep them fresh. We go tempo, they’re going to need blows. You’d like to have two or three of them you feel really good about going into the game. We feel that right now.”

A road trip to Tennessee is no easy task and if Abanikanda is truly Narduzzi’s best back as people assumed he was out of camp, he’s going to touch the ball plenty this weekend.

The Battle and Hallett competition

Stop if you’ve heard this before, but keep an eye on the free safety position this weekend.

Neither free safety — redshirt junior Erick Hallett II or sophomore Rashad Battle — was listed as the starter heading into week one. That didn’t change this week either.

But it was clear who had the edge in the competition. Hallett took the majority of the snaps and looked comfortable at the position when he was on the field. Battle, who is transitioning from cornerback, did not look as natural as the last line of defense. The sophomore had a couple of plays where he looked a little out of place and luckily for him, the Minutemen offense wasn’t refined enough to take advantage of them.

“Got a lot of confidence in Brandon Hill, Erick Hallett,” Narduzzi said. “Rashad Battle played okay, not as well as he wants to. That’s his first game [at safety].”

Battle doesn’t have this leeway with the Volunteers. If Tennessee’s redshirt junior quarterback Joe Milton III has the time to make his progressions, Battle could pay the price.

The Pitt defensive line will feast against an inexperienced Volunteer O-line

Pitt’s defensive line lost a lot of experience and talent last year when Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver departed for the NFL Draft. There were some concerns about whether or not the defensive line would be able to make up for the loss of talent.

The D-line put any concerns to bed last weekend, not missing a beat against the UMass Minutemen. Granted, it was a small sample size against an offensive line that wasn’t expected to be a major test for the Panthers. But Tennessee’s men up front are in a similar position as the Minutemen — they’re inexperienced and will have trouble stopping the likes of defensive linemen redshirt sophomore Calijah Kancey and redshirt senior Keyshon Camp on the interior.

The Volunteers lost their two most reliable linemen, Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy, to the pros this spring and both of their left tackles entered the transfer portal. But Narduzzi made sure to not downplay who the Volunteers have up front this year.

“Their offensive line is big and physical,” Narduzzi said. “Look like an SEC offensive line. Those top five guys played a bunch, they’re big, strong, know what they’re doing.”

The Neyland Stadium experience

The vast majority of Pitt’s roster got its first real gameday experience with fans in the stands this past weekend at Heinz Field. While Panther fans were sure to pack the student section last week, this weekend in Tennessee at Neyland Stadium — where football is king — will be an entirely different beast.

Neyland is ranked No. 7 overall in college football’s loudest stadiums. The Volunteers haven’t had the success they once enjoyed during the Peyton Manning era in recent history, but they still manage to consistently pack America’s No. 5 largest stadium to the brim. An average of 87,864 people packed the stadium for a game day in 2019 — the Volunteers’ lowest average attendance since 1979.

For context, Pitt football saw less than half of that — 41,486 — attend its first game this season. The Panthers will see double the amount of people, hear a lot more noise and hear a lot more hostility while not in front of the home fans. But Narduzzi said his guys will be ready for it, saying the team has been practicing with artificial crowd noise for some time now.

“Not the first time we’re going to work with the loud crowd noise,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll be prepared and we’ll be ready to go. Any time we’ve had noise issues, noisy games for our offense, our guys have stepped up and done a nice job. They’ll be prepared for it. Should not be an issue.”

Prediction — Pitt wins a close one (24-20)
The Panthers will have their first real test this weekend with the Volunteers. Tennessee may be brushed off by fans due to their recent streak of disappointing seasons, but this is still an SEC team looking to earn back some of the respect it lost. Narduzzi knows this and Pitt will be ready come Saturday.

As long as the defensive line can put pressure on Milton and force him to get rid of the football early, the Panthers should be able to pull out a victory on the road.

The offense needs to avoid mental mistakes early on to prevent another slow start on the offensive side of the ball, too. As long as redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett continues to spread the ball around, the Panthers should be just fine.

The SEC-ACC matchup will kickoff at 12 p.m. and be televised nationally on ESPN.

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