Column | Pitt’s offensive line is unsung hero in 52-21 win over Georgia Tech


Patrick Cavanagh | Staff Photographer

Pitt linebacker Chase Pine and P.J. O’Brien walked into the game against New Hampshire on Sept. 25 at Heinz Field.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

The Panthers opened their ACC schedule on the road in what many expected to be a tough matchup against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Jackets entered the game on the heels of a 23-point victory over North Carolina — shutting down Tar Heel quarterback Sam Howell, one of the premier quarterbacks in the conference.

But the Panthers were clearly the better team Saturday, routing the Jackets 52-21. Pitt went up early and led for the entirety of the statement win. That victory put the Panthers out in front in the race for the wide open ACC Coastal Division.

Pass Protection was excellent

Pitt’s super senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has dominated headlines in recent weeks — throwing for 1,731 yards and 19 touchdowns through five games, but he hasn’t done it by himself. 

Pickett threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, continuing his dominant season. Protection from his offensive line led to much of Pickett’s success. Pickett sat back, progressed through his reads and picked apart a stout Georgia Tech defense thanks to the play of his line. 

The Panthers’ experience at the position has paid dividends, and it was on full display during Saturday’s game. Every starter at the position is an upperclassmen, including the four seniors that headline the group — Owen Drexel, Marcus Minor, Gabe Houy and Carter Warren. 

The Panthers already have arguably the best quarterback in the conference, surrounded by a plethora of weapons. If the offensive line continues to protect Pickett in similar fashion, it will be very hard to slow down their offense — which leads the nation in scoring at 52.4 points per game. 

The majority of the discourse surrounding this game will likely be about Pickett, his receivers and even the running game breaking out — rightfully so. Pitt’s duo of wide receivers — senior Taysir Mack and sophomore Jordan Addison — both went over 100 yards Saturday and sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda rushed for two scores. 

But that does not happen without the protection the unit provided Pickett, and for that, they deserve a lot of praise. 

Splash plays on defense 

The rollercoaster ride that is watching Pitt’s defense threw fans for a loop against Georgia Tech. Despite giving up 432 yards of offense to the Yellow Jackets, and allowing quarterback Jeff Sims to have the Jackets’ first 300-yard passing game since Oct, 16, 2007  — the Panthers’ defense left their mark on the game. 

The Yellow Jackets first two possessions of the game ended in interceptions, and super senior linebacker John Petrishen returned the second for a touchdown. The defensive line helped force both turnovers by hurrying the quarterback. Senior defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre deflected Sims’ first interception, and senior linebacker Cam Bright finished off the play by hauling in the tipped pass. 

These turnovers set the tone for the game and gave Pitt an early two-possession lead. Plays such as these were a direct result of what Narduzzi’s scheme is intended to do. Cornerbacks are left in single coverage while the Panthers send more pressure at the quarterback, which forces the opposing passers to make deep, low-percentage throws down the sideline. 

In these instances, the pressure got to Sims and created turnovers. There are pros and cons to every scheme, as there are certain calls to combat different defenses — such as Western Michigan’s run-pass option oriented offense which gave Pitt fits in week 3 — but football is all about adjusting. 

Georgia Tech didn’t run much RPO, which was a shock considering how successful WMU was with it against the Panthers. But deeper into ACC play it will be pivotal to see how Pitt adjusts, because they’ll surely see it again. 

Some of the issues that plagued the Panther defense in recent weeks were still there. They gave up more chunk plays than they’d like and missed tackles in space, but they registered 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks on top of the two turnovers. Pitt also held Georgia Tech to two for 11 on third down and one for four on fourth down, in what should be a major confidence booster moving forward. 

Efficiency in the run game

The Panthers rushed the ball 41 times for 181 yards and two scores in their win over Georgia Tech. Most notably, Israel Abanikanda received the most carries among any Pitt running back and did not disappoint. 

On the Panthers’ first scoring drive, Abanikanda picked up a third down and followed it up three plays later with a nine-yard touchdown. This was the first score of the game for the Brooklyn native, who scored again in the second quarter. He finished the day with 60 yards on 15 carries, totaling a respectable four yards per carry.

Junior running back Vincent Davis proved a nice change of pace, rushing 13 times for 50 yards. But the Panthers’ most impressive running back for the second straight week was first-year Rodney Hammond. Hammond rushed 17 times for 100 yards and three touchdowns last week against New Hampshire, earning ACC Rookie of the Week honors

Hammond’s encore was impressive despite limited action. He only carried the ball six times but ran for 48 yards, good for eight yards per carry. He played in low-leverage situations yet again, but it will be interesting to see as the season progresses if the staff will opt to use him more often — he certainly has given them something to think about. 

The efficiency in the run game was a welcome sight for Panther fans, as Pitt has struggled to run the ball within conference play dating back several years. 

They will have to wait to see if the success in the ground game carries over. The Panthers are on a bye week next week and don’t return to action until Oct.f 16, when they travel to Blacksburg to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies and their typically formidable defense. That matchup will have massive ACC Coastal implications.