Preview | Pitt football looks to take care of business on the road against Louisville


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Solomon Deshields (23) celebrates after a touchdown during Pitt football’s game against Rhode Island on Sept. 24.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said it’s time for Pitt football to break some tendencies against Louisville, and they’ll need to if they want to remain in the Coastal Division race. 

The biggest tendencies that the Panthers need to break are the undisciplined penalties they rack up and everything that has led to an ineffective passing offense — whether that’s play-calling, wide receivers not getting separation on routes or poor decision making from Pitt senior quarterback Kedon Slovis. If they don’t break those tendencies, they won’t win — especially in a road game. 

The Panthers will travel to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Saturday — a venue they haven’t visited since 2011. Both teams are coming off of their first wins in ACC play. Pitt beat Virginia Tech 45-29, behind junior running back Israel Abanikanda’s record-breaking day. Louisville also won, taking down Virginia 34-17 in junior quarterback Brock Domann’s first career start.

Here’s what to watch for Saturday.

Can Pitt get the passing game going?

The Panthers are entering the second half of the season, and they still can’t find a rhythm throwing the football. 

Louisville presents an opportunity to get on track.

The Cardinals give up 227.5 yards per game through the air and an average of 12.5 yards per completion. Louisville also isn’t great at stopping the run, allowing more than 800 rushing yards this season, so the Panthers should find opportunities running play-action. 

Abanikanda’s success on the ground has masked a lot of Pitt’s flaws. 

The Panthers aren’t picking up long yardage plays through the air. They’ve struggled to get sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew involved in the offense, which is costly since they haven’t had many receivers step up as playmakers. Slovis has held on to the ball for too long at times, and his offensive line hasn’t given him much help.

Slovis has to make decisions faster against Louisville, who are second in the nation in sacks. Pitt’s offensive line allowed 13 sacks this season so they need to step up on Saturday. 

Slovis will need to move much quicker through his progressions. If he does, Pitt will have more success through the air against the Cardinals’ defense, which is susceptible to surrendering big plays. 

What team can play more disciplined?

Both of these teams will enter the matchup as two of the most undisciplined teams in the country.

Pitt picked up 47 penalties through six games — ranking No. 113 in the nation. Louisville tallied just one less than Pitt, sitting at 46 penalties through six games. The Cardinals are trending in the right direction though, picking up just five penalties last week against Virginia a season low.

Whoever picks up the fewest penalty yards will likely win this game.

Throughout the course of the season, Pitt picked up a multitude of costly penalties that either put their offense in tough spots or gave life to an opposing offense. Penalties are going to happen, but Pitt needs to drastically tighten it up. 

The Panthers racked up a combined 21 penalties over the course of the past two weeks. 

Pitt’s offense can’t afford to play from behind the chains. They don’t have the personnel to overcome that. Pitt doesn’t know who will get the start at quarterback for Louisville — whether it’s Domann or senior Malik Cunningam — but Pitt can’t give the Cardinals extra opportunities. 

If Cunningham is cleared to play after suffering a concussion a few weeks back, he’ll make the Panthers pay for their mistakes.

Who gets the start at quarterback for Louisville?

While Domann showed that he can lead the Cardinals to victory a few weeks ago, he’s not as explosive or experienced as Cunningham.

Before suffering a concussion, Cunningham wasn’t playing as well as he has in past years. But he’s still an electrifying player who has the ability to change games in an instant.

Cunningham threw for just three touchdowns in five games this season — but he rushed for a combined six touchdowns in his last two games. Cunningham also eclipsed 100 yards rushing in three of his past four starts. 

If Cunningham can suit up, that changes things in a big way for Louisville. Narduzzi likes to make teams one dimensional — he will sacrifice a few big plays in the passing game in order to stop the run. But that’s easier said than done with Cunningham under center.

Cunningham would provide a challenge that Pitt hasn’t faced so far this season. His ability to extend plays gives the Cardinals an entirely different dynamic. But Domann is no slouch either. 

In his first career start, Domann threw for 275 yards — more yards than Cunningham threw

The two quarterbacks are totally different in terms of style, so the Panthers will have their hands full in terms of preparation. 

Will Hammond return? If so, what will his snap count look like?

Head coach Pat Narduzzi hinted that sophomore running back Rodney Hammond will return Saturday.

Hammond was dressed against Virginia Tech — the first time he’s been in uniform since he injured his leg in the season opener against West Virginia.

The last time Pitt fans saw Hammond, he rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns against the Mountaineers. After a slow start from Abanikanda — who finished with just 15 yards rushing for the game — the coaches looked to Hammond to lead the rushing attack that night. 

With Hammond out, Abanikanda exploded. The junior came into the bye week with the most all-purpose yards and rushing touchdowns in the nation. Abanikanda has clearly shown he’s capable of leading the rushing attack, but Hammond’s return gives Pitt a strong 1-2 punch at the position.

Both players compliment each other well and have two different styles, which makes it tough on defenses. 

Prediction: Pitt wins 34-31

Nobody knows which quarterback will suit up for the Cardinals, but Pitt will get the job done either way.

Like Pitt, Louisville is also coming off of a bye week, so this should be a close game throughout — especially given how good Louisville is at getting to the quarterback. The Cardinals’ defensive line will challenge the Panthers’ offensive line, but Pitt will find a way to overcome it. 

The Cardinals are prone to giving up big plays, and this game feels like the perfect storm for Pitt to hit its stride in the passing game. Many receivers nursed injuries in recent weeks, but they should be healthier after the bye. Slovis needs to make quick reads and let his receivers make plays after the catch.

We know Pitt wants to run the football. But placing emphasis on throwing the ball will open up running lanes for their backs and keep the Cardinals defense honest. Not only will getting the ball out quickly help Slovis’ confidence — it will limit the amount of sacks he takes. 

Pitt will likely make just enough plays to pull out a win on the road Saturday night and improve to 2-1 in ACC play. 

Pitt takes on Louisville on Saturday at 8 p.m. on the ACC Network.