Preview | Narduzzi, Panthers look to avoid another letdown on Saturday against UNH

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Lucas Zheng | Staff Photographer

Brandon Hill (9) celebrates during the Pitt vs. Western Michigan game last Saturday.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

The UNH Wildcats will come to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers this Saturday for another out-of-conference matchup. This is the final out-of-conference game for the Panthers before they start their conference schedule.

The Panthers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) are coming off, arguably, one of the more disappointing losses of head coach Pat Narduzzi’s tenure. Pitt came into last week’s matchup with Western Michigan with hopes of jumping into the Associated Press top-25 rankings. Riding high off of a win against Tennessee, it seemed like the Panthers weren’t dialed in mentally.

I think physically we were prepared,” Narduzzi said. “I’m not sure mentally we were. I can’t look inside. As I told the kids, I can’t crack your head open and look inside and see what’s in there, where’s your mind been all week, what are you tweeting, what are you snapping. I don’t know.”

UNH (3-0, 2-0 America East Conference) comes in after winning three in a row, but the Panthers are still considered the favorites to win the game. But the Panthers proved last week that just because they’re favored doesn’t guarantee they’ll win.

Here’s what to look for this Saturday.

Will Israel Abanikanda see more touches?

The most confusing storyline coming from this Pitt football team is the lack of touches for sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda. Narduzzi was adamant that Abanikanda was one of his more reliable running backs heading into the season.

But through three games, Narduzzi has not backed up his training camp praises. Abanikanda has only picked up 20 carries for 76 yards, leaving him third in total rushes and yards. The seventh-year head coach named senior A.J. Davis the starter in week one, and the next two weeks it was junior Vincent Davis taking the bulk of the carries.

In the loss to Western Michigan, Abanikanda carried the ball just once and promptly posted a peace sign emoji to his Instagram story after the game. The post immediately prompted speculation that he’d transfer out of frustration with his lack of playing time. But the running back took to Twitter to say the post instead indicated he’d stay off social media rather than leave the program.

Narduzzi has expressed some concern with the lack of a reliable running game since training camp, and it seems to be lingering — redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett currently has more rushing yards than any of the team’s running backs. Whether it’s an issue with the offensive line or the running back on the field, something needs to change, and it sounds like Narduzzi may finally get Abanikanda more involved this weekend.

“He’ll get more carries this week,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll set it up, I’ll make sure it happens. But I’ve got a lot of faith in Izzy and he’s going to get more carries this weekend for sure.”

Whether he comes through with his promise or not remains to be seen.

Narduzzi vs. the fans

Narduzzi is under contract to coach the Panthers through at least the 2024 season. But some people want to see someone else at the helm before then.

After the loss, fans took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the head coach. Fans are becoming increasingly impatient with Narduzzi’s repeated losses in games that many expect him to win.

To add fuel to the fire, Narduzzi expressed that he felt responsible for the loss, but quickly dismissed it as “one ballgame.” He added that the team would not dwell on it due to the fact that it was an out-of-conference game.

Some fans didn’t like that he was so dismissive about such a morale-killing loss.

When asked if he had a message for the fans who were frustrated, it didn’t seem like Narduzzi was too worried about outside opinions.

“I’m worried about all the guys [on my team],” Narduzzi said. “I can’t help the fans. I’ll apologize to them and try to prevent it from happening again.”

Luckily for Narduzzi, it’s not up to the fans whether or not he sticks around until 2024 — it’s athletic director Heather Lyke’s decision whether or not to put him on the hot seat. But the fanbase is certainly growing frustrated with Narduzzi, and it may continue to get worse if he doesn’t right the ship.

Can the Panthers bounce back?

The loss, for fans at least, was embarrassing, deflating and morale killing. But according to Narduzzi, his guys came to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex the next day in a decent mood.

“You know, it was a good mood, like a normal, to be honest with you, and that’s kids in 2021,” Narduzzi said. “T​​here was no head-hanging and that’s what you expect.”

The Panthers are coming off of a loss that significantly hampers much of the fanbase’s expectations for the rest of the season. With just more than a week until they start conference play, the Panthers have a chance to fix nagging issues this week against UNH.

The way Pitt performs this week will tell a lot about the program — can Narduzzi get his guys back on the straight and narrow, or will the loss to the Broncos be one that hangs over the team? It seems the head coach is fairly confident in his ability to get back in the win column.

“Anything can linger,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got to just do our best job as coaches to try to get them together and pull it together and go out and beat New Hampshire. So I don’t worry about lingering.”

Prediction — Panthers win 31-14

Luckily for the Panthers, they have another low tier team coming to town after the loss to WMU. 

Pitt should be able to use this game as a tune-up game before starting their ACC slate of games.

UNH has performed very well, going 3-0 to start the season. But none of the competition has been nearly as talented as the Panthers. Pitt’s explosive and methodical passing game will prove to be too much for the Wildcat secondary. If things get out of hand early, don’t expect to see Pickett under center once the game wraps up.

Tennessee and WMU exposed the Panther secondary the past two weeks, the defensive line continued to play fairly well. UNH likes to get its quarterback outside of the pocket and make plays on the move. As long as the defensive line can consistently win the battle up front in the trenches, don’t expect the Wildcat offense to do too much this weekend.

The game will kickoff at noon at Heinz Field on Saturday, and air on both ACCNX and ESPN+.

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