Column | Key pieces break out for Pitt in 28-7 win over Virginia Tech

A+UNH+football+player+attempts+to+tackle+sophomore+running+back+Israel+Abanikanda+during+the+Pitt+vs.+UNH+game+in+September.

Joy Cao | Senior Staff Photographer

A UNH football player attempts to tackle sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda during the Pitt vs. UNH game in September.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

Pitt entered the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal Division after toppling Virginia Tech 28-7 on Saturday, silencing a hostile crowd and giving the Hokies their first blemish within conference. Here are my takeaways from a resounding road victory by the Panthers. 

Izzy Abanikanda finally breaks out

Much of the discourse surrounding Pitt football heading into this season circled around sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda and how he was poised for a breakout season.

During training camp, the staff raved about his performance and it seemed as if he would take the reins as the Panthers’ top running back out of the gate. It may have taken longer than Pitt fans envisioned, but the breakthrough finally happened Saturday. 

Abanikanda carried the ball 21 times for 140 yards against Virginia Tech, good for just under seven yards per rush. This is despite not touching the ball throughout the entirety of the third quarter, which makes it all the more impressive that he put up eye-popping numbers in just three quarters of work. 

It’s possible that he may have missed the opening of the second half due to a few mistakes in pass protection earlier in the game. Abanikanda got a flag for tripping in the first half which brought back a long reception by junior receiver Jared Wayne, as well as missing a block on a play that likely would have resulted in a massive gain to senior tight end Lucas Krull. 

In the coming weeks, Abanikanda should still see the majority of the workload at the position despite miscues in pass protection. The positives he brings to the offense massively outweigh the negatives — which are very coachable. 

For a team that relies so much on airing it out — and rightfully so, since the Panthers have the best quarterback in the conference in fifth-year senior Kenny Pickett — it’s comforting to know that you have a reliable back in short yardage situations. 

A complete game from the defense

Fans and analysts alike viewed the Panthers’ defense as one of the strengths of the team this offseason, but it hadn’t lived up to lofty expectations through the first five games. 

Outside of the Western Michigan loss where the defense looked helpless, Pitt’s defense has been relatively steady and has created timely turnovers in big situations but has not played a complete game — until Saturday, that is.

In previous games, Pitt made some massive plays on the defensive end but also made its fair share of mistakes. In games against Tennessee and Georgia Tech, the Panthers’ defense gave up over 350 yards and several chunk plays that made spectators scratch their heads. 

Saturday’s game against the Hokies was a different story.

The Panthers stifled the Virginia Tech offense, holding them to just seven points — the first time the Panthers held an ACC opponent to seven points or less under head coach Pat Narduzzi. 

Pitt’s defense held Virginia Tech to 224 yards and only 13 first downs, while registering three sacks and four tackles for loss as a unit. 

Granted, Hokies junior starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister came into the matchup banged up, with an injury to his throwing shoulder — but this was a dominating performance. Pitt held Burmeister to 11 for 32 on the day and under 150 yards

This performance serves as a building block for the defense as a whole, but more specifically the secondary. That group has really struggled this year at times, so to see this type of performance from them was encouraging. 

Junior safety Erick Hallett was among the standouts. He came away with an interception and looked much improved compared to his play earlier this season. 

Panther fans expected Pitt to have to overpower opposing teams with its offense to win games the rest of the season, but if the defense continues to play like this, they will take a lot of weight off the offense’s shoulders. 

Pitt controls its own destiny in the ACC Coastal

Pitt and Virginia Tech entered this game as the only teams in the division without losses, meaning whoever won this game controlled their own destiny to win the ACC Coastal and earn a conference title game berth. 

After the Panthers’ victory over the Hokies, they now hold the tiebreaker, meaning Virginia Tech is two games back of Pitt in the division standings despite only trailing the Panthers by one game in the loss column. Pitt holds at least a two game lead on every team within the division, making it increasingly likely that it will make the ACC Championship Game.

The Panthers still must take it one game at a time though, as there is still plenty of season left. Next weekend Clemson comes to town for what is arguably Pitt’s biggest home game since the Big East Championship Game in 2009 against Cincinnati, one of the most infamous and heartbreaking losses in program history.

While the Tigers are unranked and not the world-beating, national title contenders of years past, they are still ultra-talented and Pitt can’t afford to overlook them, according to Pickett. 

“They’re a heck of a team,” Pickett said. “I know everyone’s talking about them like they’re not Clemson. They’re still Clemson. They’re a heck of a team.”

He’s right. The Tigers are still a team riddled with five-star talent, coached by Dabo Swinney and still one of the premier programs in the country. This is a massive game for the Panthers, and it would be a statement win in what could be a preview of this year’s ACC title game. 

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