Abanikanda scores four times, shines in 45-24 rout of Rhode Island


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Junior running back Israel Abanikanda (2) dodges a tackle during Pitt football’s game against Rhode Island Saturday afternoon.

By Brian Sherry, Staff Writer

Junior running back Israel Abanikanda is on fire so far in 2022. The junior half back followed up his impressive performance against Western Michigan last weekend by dropping a career high 177 yards and 4 touchdowns in No. 24 Pitt’s (3-1, 0-0 ACC) 45-24 victory against Rhode Island (2-2, 1-1 CAA) on Saturday at Acrisure Stadium. 

Abanikanda absolutely torched the Rams (2-2, 1-1 CAA), accounting for 24 of the Panthers’ (3-1, 0-0 ACC) 45 points. This was also Abanikanda’s third straight 100+ yard performance, making him the first Panther since 2017 to accomplish this feat. Abanikanda was confident with his performance and said he knew he was capable of putting up high-caliber numbers.

“I’m not surprised,” Abanikanda said. “I know what I’m capable of. I’m just going to keep working and even try to do better.”

Senior quarterback Kedon Slovis also made his return for the Panthers. Slovis left the game at halftime two weeks ago against Tennessee, causing him to miss last week’s contest against Western Michigan. The signal caller threw for 189 yards and no touchdowns. Despite the quiet performance, Slovis said he was glad to be back on the field.

“It’s always good to be back,” Slovis said. “It felt good just being at practice everyday. Tried last week but it just didn’t work out. Being in practice feeling good and being able to play the game is just awesome.”

Rhode Island was jumpy on offense to start the game, piling up three false starts in the first quarter. Nonetheless, the Panthers continued their defensive dominance from last week, forcing three straight three-and-outs to start the game. 

The Panthers defensive front found success breaking up passes early and pressuring the Rams quarterback. First, junior linebacker Bangally Kamara came up big for the Panthers on third down, batting a pass down to force a punt  on the second drive of the game. The next drive, senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis joined in on the fun, tipping another pass to force an incompletion. 

Before the offense even took a snap, redshirt junior M.J. Devonshire opened things up for the Panthers, gliding into the endzone for an 82 yard punt return. With the score, Devonshire became the first Panther to return a punt and an interception for a touchdown in the same season since Derrelle Revis in 2006

Devonshire said his punt return felt very similar to his game changing pick six against West Virginia. 

“It was like the pick six,” Devonshire said. “It just opened up. Like, oh, I’m looking at the student section again.”

Slovis looked rusty on his first drive back from injury. He was inaccurate, unable to connect on a pass to senior running back Vincent Davis. The Panthers ultimately couldn’t achieve much on their first offensive drive, punting after a short three and out. 

On their next drive, Abanikanda showed his poise as an impact play-maker, breaking off a 67 yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 14-0. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said he was happy with Abanikanda and the whole offensive effort with rushing the ball. 

Junior running back Israel Abanikanda (2) scores a touchdown during Pitt football’s game against Rhode Island Saturday afternoon. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)

“[Abanikanda] has done a nice job when he pops through,” said Narduzzi. “The offensive line did an outstanding job, so they’ve done — we took what they gave us today, and we were able to run the ball, and if we can run the ball and have the ball for 35 minutes, it’s a good day.”

Despite finding themselves down 14 points early, the Rams wouldn’t go down without a fight. Senior running back Marques DeSheilds broke through the Pitt defensive line, sprinting into the endzone for a 63 yard touchdown which cut the deficit in half. The run put the Rams within striking distance, but the Panthers quickly found an answer.

Slovis finally found his groove, hitting several receivers for short gains in the Panthers first sustained drive of the game. Pitt drove down the field, utilizing short passes and runs to keep the drive alive. Abanikanda eventually found the endzone again, breaking through for a 12-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers ahead by 14 points. 

The Rams managed to strike back towards the end of the half, following a 45 yard reception over the middle by redshirt senior wideout Paul Woods, the Rams pushed their way into the endzone with a one yard touchdown run by DeSheilds. But Pitt still headed to the locker room holding a 24-14 lead. 

The Panthers continued to find success with a slow and methodical offense to start the second half. Slovis was hesitant to throw deep downfield, but gained momentum by sticking to a short passing attack. Pitt capped off the long drive with a 12 yard touchdown run by Abanikanda, adding to their 31-14 lead.

But Rhode Island also adopted a methodical approach on offense. The Rams marched down the field on their first drive of the half, holding possession of the ball for over eight minutes. Rhode Island ultimately settled for a field goal, knocking Pitt’s commanding lead down to 14. 

Pitt stuck with its slower gameplan on the next drive. Play by play the Panthers marched down the field, which ended in another 13-yard touchdown rush by Abanikanda to make the score 38-17. 

The Rams scored a late touchdown off a 15 yard catch by redshirt junior receiver Darius Savedge. But the damage was already done. Davis capped off the 45-24 rout of Rhode Island with an 18 yard rushing touchdown following a recovered onside kick. 

The Panthers will open up ACC conference play next week at home against Georgia Tech. Kick off time is to be determined.