Column | Football season reflections


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Pitt football players tackle Duke quarterback Jordan Moore (8) during Pitt’s game against Duke Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

It’s safe to say fans had high expectations for Pitt football heading into the 2022 season. After winning an ACC championship in 2021 and bringing in a few promising transfers, another championship run wasn’t out of the question.

As we know, the season didn’t go exactly to plan. But it wasn’t as poor as some may think. Things could have gone a lot worse after the Panthers started out 4-4, but the team settled in and won its last four games of the year.

The Panthers finished with a respectable 8-4 record and a bowl game bid. Transfer sophomore wide receiver Bub Means credited the team’s turnaround to head coach Pat Narduzzi and his continued enthusiasm during the season.

 “He brings the energy,” Means said. “He kind of lights a fire under us.”

But the individual players have the biggest impact on the outcome of the season, and this season would likely be much more disappointing without the breakout of Israel Abanikanda. The potential was always there for him. Abanikanda took full advantage of his opportunities in 2022, filling in the gaping offensive hole left by the departure of Jordan Addison and Kenny Pickett. 

Abanikanda sealed a spot in the 2023 NFL draft this season, finishing with 1,431 rushing yards and an NCAA-leading 21 total touchdowns. Abanikanda also produced one of the best seasons ever from a Pitt running back, as he now owns the Pitt record for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a single game, as well as the fourth most rushing touchdowns in a season.

On the other side of the ball, redshirt junior defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis were monsters in the trenches and helped honor Pitt’s defensive reputation. Kancey finished the season with career highs in sacks and tackles for loss, with 7.5 and 14.5, respectively. Meanwhile, Dennis finished with a career high seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one interception. The pair combined for 125 tackles and helped lead the school to first in the NCAA in sacks with a team total of 45.

Redshirt senior defensive back Erick Hallett II locked things down in the secondary, continuing on his breakout in 2021. He racked up career highs with three interceptions, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 12 pass deflections and three tackles for loss. His strong 2022 campaign and the strength of the entire Pitt defense allowed them to be the second-highest scoring defense in the nation, scoring five defensive touchdowns on the year. 

You can’t only look at the positives, though, as a season like this always comes with what-ifs. But there is one huge what-if looking back on the season — the loss against UNC, who will represent the coastal division in the ACC Championship Game this year. The Panthers held the lead in that matchup until the fourth quarter, when they gave up 21 unanswered points. If they held on and won that game, they would be back in the championship game this year. You could also look back to the tough losses against Georgia Tech and Louisville as the big let downs of the year.

It’s hard to point fingers, but the passing game is what held Pitt back this year. Pitt was hard-pressed to replace Pickett and Addison, but the passing game still fell flat of pre-season expectations. Among the let downs this season, senior quarterback Kedon Slovis is perhaps the biggest. 

Slovis passed for 2,391 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 11 games. This was a monumental drop in production from last year, when Pickett passed for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Not only was it a letdown from Pickett’s 2021 performance, but it was a letdown from what Slovis can do. In his 2019 freshman season at USC, Slovis passed for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was also sacked 23 times that season compared to only 15 with Pitt this season.

Is a down year the end of the world for Pitt football? No, but it definitely did some damage. Four-star quarterback recruit Kenny Minchey flipped his commitment from Pitt to Notre Dame during the disappointing season.

Narduzzi is very successful recruiting in the transfer portal. Also, a bowl game win to finish 9-4 on the season would help show prospects that Pitt is still a desirable location. The Panthers continue to have one of the nation’s top defenses and, with a couple of adjustments, the offense can regain some of its strength 

2022 failed to meet expectations, but two solid seasons in a row is a good sign for Pitt football.