Takeaways | Pitt’s defense needs to prevent big plays, it’s time to give up on Slovis


AP Photo/Chris Seward

Pittsburgh wide receiver Jared Wayne (5), left, hauls in a long pass against North Carolina defensive back Storm Duck (3) to set up a touchdown during Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

Against No. 21 UNC’s flimsy defense, Pitt football had an opportunity to find an offensive groove in a must-win game. Instead, the Panthers fumbled a 24-14 lead, surrendering 28 unanswered points in the last 21 minutes of the game. Pitt fell to the Tar Heels 42-24 on Saturday, dropping to 1-3 in conference play.

Here are my takeaways.

Narduzzi needs to give up on Kedon Slovis

The transition from Kenny Pickett to senior Kedon Slovis at quarterback has been an ugly one. While Slovis kept it clean in the loss to UNC — not throwing an interception for the first time since the 45-24 win over Rhode Island — he only completed 14 of his 31 passes for 236 yards. This effort combined for a measly 37.7 QBR.

After eight weeks, Slovis has 1,561 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. Through eight weeks in 2021, Pickett compiled 2,755 yards, 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. No one is asking Slovis to play like Pickett, but the team surely expected Slovis to provide considerably more to the offense.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi has blindly put his faith in Slovis this season despite his poor play. After losing to Louisville, Narduzzi said he thinks Slovis is still Pitt’s best quarterback.

I got no doubt about Kedon,” Narduzzi said. “He’s our best quarterback to help us win a football game right now.” 

Following this week’s loss to the Tar Heels, Narduzzi doubled down on his statement, saying he thought Slovis played well. At this point in the season, with four losses and basically no chance at an ACC Championship game appearance, why not let someone else get experience at quarterback?

Slovis has draft eligibility and one more year of NCAA eligibility. After his poor showing this season, it feels logical for him to forgo the draft and return for another season. But Nate Yarnell showed promise in his start against Western Michigan and four-star recruit Kenny Minchey is joining Pitt for the 2023 season, leaving the quarterback room quite crowded. If Slovis is a question mark for 2023, it’s time to move on and give someone else experience.

The Pitt defense can’t stop a nosebleed

UNC first-year quarterback Drake Maye had no trouble dicing up the Pitt secondary on Saturday. He threw the ball 44 times, completing 34 of his passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns. He had more completions than Slovis had passing attempts and a QBR almost 60 points higher than Slovis’. Pitt’s defense had no answer for him and allowed two UNC receivers to go over 100 yards. Antoine Green caught 10 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns and Josh Downs caught 11 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns, for an average of 9.3 yards per catch. 

The Pitt secondary has only allowed 231 passing yards per game and 6.7 yards per reception on average this season. The defense held the UNC running game in check on Saturday, only allowing 86 total rushing yards, far lower than their season average of 120 rushing yards per game.

While statistically it looks like the Pitt defense hasn’t been too bad, they haven’t passed the eye test. The phrase “bend not break” is thrown around often with this defense — give up big plays but stop them in your own territory. 

But they break as much as they bend. 

Long plays are hurting the Panthers this year, and they still have no answer for the issue. It looks like they lose their assignments in zone coverage and get beat outright in man coverage. The entire defense struggles to make tackles and surrenders to the big play.

Whether it is the play calling or the effort from the players, opposing offenses are exposing the Pitt defense taking deep shots.

Abanikanda is the best running back in the country

It’s a bold statement, but statistically it’s the truth. On Saturday, junior running back Israel Abanikanda added 127 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to his astronomical season totals. He currently leads the NCAA with 16 rushing touchdowns, 1,423 all-purpose yards and 17 total touchdowns.

The Pitt offense runs through Abanikanda since he’s the only offensive weapon on the team who’s playing well this year. He has 11 more rushing touchdowns than Slovis has passing touchdowns. 

The only reason Pitt has four wins is because of Abanikanda. There are four games in 2022 where Pitt didn’t have a passing touchdown — against UNC, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Rhode Island. In those games, Abanikanda rushed for 14 touchdowns and 753 yards. Pitt lost two of those four games, and it’s easy to assume it would have lost all four without those massive efforts from him.

If there’s any silver lining to a so far disappointing 2022, it’s Abanikanda.

Pitt’s next game is this Saturday against Syracuse. The game will kick off at Acrisure Stadium at 3:30 p.m.