Abanikanda’s record breaking day lifts Panthers to 45-29 win over Virginia Tech

By Dalton Coppola, Sports Editor

Pitt football lost as a home favorite last week to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Panthers fell to 0-1 in conference games, putting themselves in a hole to start ACC play. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said the matchup with Virginia Tech this weekend was “another good challenge for our guys to bounce back and find out what we got.”

Junior running back Israel Abanikanda certainly heard his coach’s call to action and had one of the most dominant rushing performances in Pitt history on Saturday. The offense’s struggles were a point of concern after last week. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti decided to lean on Abanikanda and it paid off.

The junior ran for 230 yards in the contest — breaking Heisman winner Tony Dorsett’s single-game rushing record. He also ran for six touchdowns, tying a Pitt record set over a century ago in 1910. Abanikanda said while the performance was one of his best, he’s always known he was destined for greatness.

“I was just showing them me,” Abanikanda said. “This isn’t new to me. Like I said every time, I’ve been doing this.”

Narduzzi said Abanikanda’s performance was unlike one he’s ever seen before.

“He’s got breakaway speed, when he pops in there, good luck to you,” Narduzzi said. “He only had 36 carries too we probably could’ve given it to him 10 more times… Izzy is a football player. Izzy’s really good.”

Behind the dominant performance from Abanikanda, the Panthers (4-2, 1-1 ACC) took down the Hokies 45-29 (2-4, 1-2 ACC) at Acrisure Stadium. Narduzzi said he felt this was the best game his team has played all year.

“I think that’s the best 60 minutes we’ve put together as a team,” Narduzzi said.“I just love the way our kids hang in there and continue to fight and believe.”

Behind the dominant performance from Abanikanda, the Panthers (4-2, 1-1 ACC) took down the Hokies (2-4, 1-2 ACC) 45-29 at Acrisure Stadium.

The Panthers picked up just where they left off last week — unable to move the football on offense. Pitt’s first drive started inside of their own 10-yard line, stacked up in its own territory. The sequence started with three straight run plays, which culminated in a loss of four yards. Pitt fans — for the second week in a row — rained down boos in displeasure.

That displeasure dissipated pretty soon after.

On Pitt’s next drive, the offense converted three third-downs through the passing game and ate up five minutes off of the clock. Abanikanda capped off an 11 play drive with a 38-yard dash through a hole for a Pitt touchdown. 

But the Panthers struck right back. Pitt committed a flurry of penalties, giving the Hokies 25 yards off of them. The Hokies capitalized. On four plays, they went 75 yards and scored a touchdown in one minute. But junior defensive lineman Deandre Jules blocked the extra point, keeping Pitt in control of a 7-6 lead.

But the Hokies didn’t let their foot off of the gas. Virginia Tech ran the read-option to near perfection on the next drive, slowly but surely marching down the field. The Panthers made a big stand when it mattered, though. Despite making it all the way down to the Pitt one-yard line, the Hokies couldn’t punch it in on three straight plays and settled for a field goal to take a 9-7 lead.

The Panthers could not get out of their own way in the first half.

After handing the Hokies their first touchdown on penalties, senior quarterback Kedon Slovis threw a ball high and off of the hands of sophomore receiver Jaden Bradley. The ball fluttered in the air before Virginia Tech junior linebacker Keonta Jenkins dove to pull off an acrobatic interception. Just two plays later, the Hokies scored another touchdown off of a Pitt mistake to take a 16-7 lead.

Cignetti continued to lean on Abanikanda to generate offense when the offense began stalling. After the second Hokie touchdown, Abanikanda ran for 42 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown to pull the Panthers within striking distance at 16-14.

The Panthers managed to pick up three more points on a field goal from sophomore kicker Ben Sauls, giving the Panthers a 17-16 lead to take into the half.

The first half of the game was sloppy in all phases, with a total of 11 penalties for 80 yards, blocked punts and extra points and dropped passes. It wasn’t pretty, but Pitt still came out of the half with a one point lead.

Pitt and Virginia Tech traded a pair of three-and-outs to start the second half. But the Hokies’ punt came off of the side of the punter’s foot, giving Pitt the ball near the 50-yard line. Abanikanda once again put on a clinic. The junior capped off a six play drive with a 29-yard touchdown, his third of the day, and gave Pitt a 24-16 lead.

He didn’t stop there. On the ensuing offensive possession he once again rumbled for 25 yards and a touchdown, allowing Pitt to pull away with a 31-16 lead.

But the Panthers didn’t make things easy on themselves. Pitt unsuccessfully attempted a fourth-and-short and turned the ball over on downs. The Hokies took advantage of the mis-step as junior quarterback Grant Wells uncorked a 43-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Da’Wain Lofton. Down just eight points now, the Hokies made it a one possession game and put the pressure on the Pitt offense.

The offense crumbled under the pressure, going three-and-out on the ensuing drive. The Panthers came on to punt, but first-year Sam Vander Haar bobbled the snap and it took him an extra second to get the punt off. This gave first-year Hokie P.J. Prioleau enough time to block the punt, which the Hokies recovered in the endzone for a touchdown. The two-point-conversion attempt failed.

Pitt surrendered 13 points in less than two minutes, bringing the score to 31-29. The Panthers once again went three-and-out on the ensuing drive and it looked like the Hokies had flipped the script. The Hokies were driving, but a huge hit from senior defensive lineman John Morgan forced a fumble to give the Panthers the ball back.

Abanikanda didn’t let the Panthers waste another opportunity. He rumbled for 39 yards on two plays, the second of which was ra 10-yard touchdown — his fifth of the game to set a single-game career high.

But he wasn’t done yet.

Abanikanda ran the ball 80 yards for another Pitt touchdown, his sixth of the game and put the game away to secure a Pitt win.

The Panthers and Abanikanda will have next week off to rest up before taking on Louisville on Oct. 22. The ACC will announce the time and network of the game at a later date.