Preview | Panthers look to answer looming questions against Rhode Island Rams

Junior+running+back+Israel+Abanikanda+%282%29+runs+the+ball+through+a+crowd+of+players+during+the+Johnny+Majors+Classic+on+Sept.+10+vs.+Tennessee.

Lucas Zheng | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior running back Israel Abanikanda (2) runs the ball through a crowd of players during the Johnny Majors Classic on Sept. 10 vs. Tennessee.

By Jermaine Sykes

After a convincing road win over the Western Michigan Broncos, No. 24 Pitt (2-1, 0-0 ACC) returns home and hopes to tack on another win this week. The Panthers handled business against the Broncos and are looking to do the same against FCS opponent Rhode Island (2-1, 0-0 CAA). But they should use this game as a final tune-up before conference play begins.

First-year quarterback Nate Yarnell stepped in for injured seniors Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti against the Broncos. Yarnell completed nine passes for 179 yards and one touchdown. Despite the low volume, Yarnell performed well given the circumstances. If Slovis and Patti can’t go on Saturday, the Panthers look to Yarnell to step up again when they take on the Rams. 

The heart and soul of the Panthers’ offense in 2022 has been the running game. Junior Israel Abanikanda has led the offense this year. Against the Broncos, he and the Panthers rushed for 255 yards. Abanikanda has stepped up as a true lead back this season and that is a bad sign for the Rams, who allow more than 130 rushing yards per game.

Defensively the Rams aren’t great but there are some players to look out for. Senior defensive back Jordan Jones leads the Rams in both interceptions and pass breakups with two and three respectively. First-year linebacker Aj Peña leads Rhode Island with three and a half sacks in just three games. The Panthers can’t ignore these players.

The Rams are simply outmatched defensively. But that is only if the Panthers can get their playmakers involved. Coming into the season it looked like the Panthers would repeat as one of the best passing games in the country with their elite receiving core. But so far this season, the passing game hasn’t performed well.

The most obvious issue is the lack of chemistry with the quarterbacks and receivers, but at this point in the season, the Panthers must iron out the wrinkles. The Panthers know how good Abanikanda and the running game are, but getting the passing game clicking will make the offense elite and dynamic.

Defensively, the Panthers rebounded versus Western Michigan after allowing 65 points in their first two weeks to West Virginia and Tennessee. The defensive backs for the Panthers have stepped up this season. Senior cornerback Marquis Williams has caused a few turnovers to start the season, including a pick-six against Western Michigan. 

In the front seven, it’s been a bitter start to the season for the Panthers because junior defensive Dayon Hayes went down with a reported knee injury that has sidelined him.

On the bright side, senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis had a great start to the year. Dennis has 20 tackles along with two-and-a-half sacks and is the leader of the Panther defense. Along with senior defensive linemen John Morgan III and junior defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, the Rams’ offensive line unit has a tough matchup.

Senior quarterback Kasim Hill leads the Rams’ offense. Hill had a productive start to the season with six touchdowns and two interceptions. But facing a Panthers’ defense who just allowed just seven pass completions versus Western Michigan, Hill is in for a long day. 

The Achilles’ heel for the Panthers has been special teams. Much of the struggle is attributed to inexperience. First-year punter Sam Vander Haar and sophomore kicker Ben Sauls have big roles this year and it seems too much for them to start the season. Vander Haar averages just 40 yards per punt. Sauls has missed three of his eight kicks. The specialists need to knock the rust off before conference play starts. 

The Panthers have questions this season. How is the health in the quarterback room? How can they get the receivers and tight ends involved in the passing game? Can the defense and special teams unit be more consistent?

The Panthers are a talented team, and their No. 24 ranking proves that. But they need to answer these questions if they want to keep that ranking and repeat as ACC champions. Pitt will likely beat the Rams. But this game is about solving these problems instead of just stomping an outmatched opponent.

Pitt’s clash with the Rams will kickoff at noon at Acrisure Stadium. Fans can watch the game on ACC Network.