Column | Panthers overcome slow start, demolish Duke

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(AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Duke running back Mataeo Durant (21) and Pitt defensive back Brandon Hill (9) collide as Durant holds the ball during Saturday’s game at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

Despite being stuck on cruise control to open the game, the Panthers found their footing and pulled away from Duke in a 54-29 win, maintaining their one game lead within a chaotic ACC Coastal division and giving Pitt fans a chance to catch their breath.

But if the Panthers want to defend home turf in Thursday’s matchup with North Carolina, they’ll need to start faster and give more snaps to their reliable playmakers on offense. 

Gavin Bartholomew should see more snaps than Lucas Krull

Senior tight end Lucas Krull became a fan favorite after his impressive start to the year, but he isn’t even the best player at his position on the roster.

First-year tight end Gavin Bartholomew has come on strong as of late, tallying a touchdown against the Blue Devilshis second of the year. Throughout conference play, he has consistently shown sure-handedness and put on a great display of blocking.

Krull’s play has gone downhill over the past month, paving the way for an uptick in playing time for Bartholomew. Krull has been plagued by drops recently, and he put the ball on the ground in the Clemson game.

The Panthers utilized a two tight end set for much of the Duke game, mainly due to the absences of two receivers — senior Taysir Mack and sophomore Jaylon Barden. As the Panthers get healthy, and opt to use more single tight end sets, Bartholomew should get the nod.

With ACC play dwindling, and with no room for error, the Panthers should employ the player who makes the fewest mistakes and makes the most of their opportunities. For Pitt, that player is Bartholomew.

Izzy Abanikanda should see the field every series

The Panthers use their running backs by series, rather than just mixing them in based on whoever is hot at the moment.

Sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda carried the ball 10 times for 67 yards against the Blue Devils, and that amount of touches is shockingly low for a player who ended the day averaging almost seven yards per carry.

Abanikanda did not see the field across a multitude of different drives against Duke, and that’s inexcusable. The Brooklyn native is one of the most gifted players on Pitt’s offense, and should see the field every drive to create more scoring opportunities.

This didn’t happen in just the Duke game, but throughout the course of the season. First-year running back Rodney Hammond is extremely talented, has loads of potential and should see more playing time, but it would be much more beneficial to the offense to mix him and Abanikanda in on the same drive.

Having a player of Abanikanda’s caliber and sitting him on the sideline for long periods of time is counterproductive. In the coming weeks with matchups against North Carolina and Virginia, the Panthers will need to establish a run game to win.

As we saw last week, forcing fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett to drop back and throw 50 plus times isn’t a recipe for success, despite his proven ability as a passer. The next two games on Pitt’s schedule will be shootouts, and the Panthers will have to run clock and control tempo on offense to win a game like that.

As long as he is healthy, Abanikanda should be on the field for every drive the rest of the season. It maximizes the Panthers’ chances to win games.

Slow starts on defense is concerning

The Panther defense came out of the gates in underwhelming fashion once again, much like last week against Miami — continuing a jarring trend.

In the first quarter against the Hurricanes, the Panther defense gave up 237 yards in the first quarter and just 253 throughout the remainder of the game. Saturday’s game against Duke was more of the same, with the Blue Devils marching for 210 first quarter yards, but only 174 over the next three quarters.

Duke entered the day at No. 91 in the FBS in scoring offense, averaging just 24.5 points per game. In the Blue Devils’ two previous games against Wake Forest and North Carolina — two of the worst defenses in the conference — they mustered up just seven points combined.

Against the Panthers, Duke gained 384 yards and put up 29 points. It should be noted that the Blue Devils started two of its drives in Panther territory due to turnovers committed by the Pitt offense, so it wasn’t all on the defense. But the defense needs to be better as a whole, especially at the beginning of games.

A major reason the Panthers are in the top two in second quarter points per game is because they are consistently forced to dig themselves out of holes.

Pitt has a quick turnaround with UNC looming this coming Thursday, and if the Panthers don’t clean up errors on the back end, North Carolina’s junior quarterback Sam Howell will make them pay. The defense cannot put the offense in a hole. If they get too far behind against a dynamic Tar Heel offense, they may never recover.

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