lair – The 3-2-1 Column: Pitt gets set for the regular season finale with Miami

The Pitt football team will conclude the 2022 regular season on Saturday night with a showdown against the Miami Hurricanes. The Panthers will be looking to finish off the regular season with a fourth straight win, but this was not the season we expected from this team, and we’ll get into that.

The Pitt men’s basketball team has won back-to-back games, can this team start to build some momentum heading into December? Also the Pitt men’s soccer team is in the Sweet 16…again. Can the Panthers breakthrough for a national title?

Make a turkey sandwich and pile on some mashed potatoes, because we have plenty to talk about in this special Black Friday edition of the 3-2-1 Column.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

2022 did not go as expected
The Pitt Panthers will meet the Miami Hurricanes tomorrow night from Hard Rock Stadium for an 8:00 p.m. kick on the ACC Network.

Wait…shouldn’t this game be on ABC as the primetime game of the week?

After all both of these teams were picked to be the two best teams in the ACC Coastal this season. This regular season finale was supposed to be for all the marbles. Why is it hidden on the ACC Network?

Oh, that’s right. The 2022 season did not go as planned.

This game in particular was one that many expected to decide the ACC Coastal in the 2022 season, but it is hardly that and this matchup lost its luster long ago with a disappointing season from each team.

Miami did not hold up its end of the deal this year as they enter Saturday’s game with a 5-6 record after being ranked 16th in the preseason AP Poll. The Hurricanes have not meshed well with first-year head coach Mario Cristobal, and starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke did not have the Heisman type season some thought he could have had.

We’re all aware of what has held Pitt back this season by now, I think. The Panthers have a top-20 defense in the country, which was not totally unexpected heading into the year. They have multiple players on that side of the ball that look like future NFL players. The Pitt offense, however, has been troublesome for most of the season. Aside from the brilliance of Israel Abanikanda running the football, the Pitt offense has been ordinary, if not just outright bad.

Kedon Slovis did not meet expectations at quarterback for starters. He heads into the final game of the season with more interceptions thrown than touchdown passes. First year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. holds his share of the blame for the quarterback’s struggles and the offense’s lack of cohesiveness.

The wide receiver transfers, Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means, were not adequate replacements for Jordan Addison. The five-man offensive linemen of returning starters from last season never played a single snap together this year.

Simply put, the 2022 season has just been full of injuries, mistakes, and frustration. The loss to Georgia Tech will always be one of the more head-scratching losses in the Pat Narduzzi tenure. For a season that had so much promise, the Panthers just never lived up to the preseason hype to follow up last season’s ACC Championship.

After that not so subtle reminder of how this season has played out, it should be noted Pitt can still finish the season in a positive fashion with a win on Saturday night. The Panthers have bounced back from a 4-4 start and have won all three of their games in the month of November. The defense is playing at a high level and it has been enough to allow for Pitt to make a late season push.

Pitt has two games remaining. If they were to beat the Hurricanes on Saturday and win whatever bowl game they land, Pitt would finish with a 9-4 record. Combine that total with the 11 wins from 2021, it would give the Panthers 20 victories in a two-year stretch, which would represent the best two year total since 1981-82. Looking at it from that perspective, this strong finish would offer some consolation to an otherwise letdown of a season.

Having said that, there are certainly many ways to get to 9 wins in a college football season, and if Pitt were to get there with two more wins, they likely took the most frustrating path possible.

Israel Abanikanda can cap off a remarkable season
ESPN college football writer David Hale presented a stat on Twitter earlier this week that really caught my eye. Former Pitt star James Conner is the only ACC running back to rush for over 1,400 yards and score 20 touchdowns in a season since 2010, when he rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns back in 2014. Conner won the ACC Player of the Year for his showing that season.

Pitt junior tailback Israel Abanikanda enters Saturday’s game with 1,320 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns on the season. He needs one more touchdown and 80 rushing yards this season to cross into that threshold that Conner reached in 2014. In a season that has been marred by the ineffectiveness by the passing game, the brilliance of Abanikanda has likely been overshadowed for this Pitt offense.

Abanikanda has been electric all season and he has etched his name in the Pitt record books more than once during the 2022 campaign with a chance to add to that even further on Saturday. The junior tailback had arguably one of the best individual performances in program history with a 320-yard 6-touchdown game against Virginia Tech earlier this season. The rushing total is now a school record, surpassing the previous high from Pitt’s only Heisman winner, Tony Dorsett. The six touchdowns are tied for the most in Pitt history in a single game, a record that’s been held since 1910.

In addition to that great game against the Hokies, Abanikanda’s season total for rushing touchdowns (18) is now fourth in Pitt history and he now only trials Pitt legends like Dorsett, Conner, and LeSean McCoy in that department.

Abanikanda is 8th in career rushing touchdowns with 26 and his 1,320 yards this year is the tenth highest total in single season history for the Panthers. Abanikanda needs nine more yards to move into ninth place ahead of McCoy’s freshman season back in 2007.

The Panthers star tailback has been named the ACC’s Running Back of the Week four times this season. He is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top running back. Abanikanda’s 19 total touchdowns is tied for the national lead and he is second in college football in all purpose yardage.

Abanikanda has truly had an excellent season and to think he also missed a game and a half as well.

Pitt takes a backseat to few, if any, college football programs when it comes to producing great running backs.

Dorsett, Heyward, Martin, McCoy, Conner, Lewis…

Pitt has produced some legendary running backs through the years, and Abanikanda just posted a season that can rival many of theirs.

Abanikanda would have two more years of eligibility should he choose to use them, but given the season he just had and the shelf life of running backs in professional football, it’s very likely we are getting towards the end of Abanikanda’s time in a Pitt uniform. It has not been a bad run at all for the former three-star recruit from Lincoln High in Brooklyn.

Pitt soccer is making another title push
The Pitt men’s soccer program is in the midst of its most successful run in program history and they can add to this unprecedented run of success with another victory this weekend. Pitt takes on Kentucky this Sunday at 6:00 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Pitt had only made the NCAA Tournament twice prior to the arrival of current head coach Jay Vidovich. The sixth year head coach has flipped the script for this program. He has since guided Pitt to four straight NCAA Tournament berths and the team now has a chance to advance to the national quarterfinals for the third consecutive season.

Kentucky is the number one overall seed and present a daunting task for this Pitt team. The Wildcats are standing in the way of the Panthers from advancing to the round of eight, but given the way Pitt is playing right now, you would be hard pressed to count the Panthers out of this one.

Pitt dispatched Cleveland State 2-1 in the opening round, then went to Akron last Sunday and cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Zips in round two. Pitt is certainly battle tested after playing a grueling slate of games in the always-competitive ACC. Vidovich also beefed up the non-conference schedule this season. Pitt’s 10-4-5 record might not seem strike fear in opponents, but looking past that, this is a team capable of making a run all the way to the College Cup for the second time in three years.

Senior midfielder Valentin Noel has been brilliant this season. The first team All-ACC pick scored a pair of goals in Pitt’s win over Akron. Junior forward Bertin Jacquesson struck for both of Pitt’s goals in the first round win over Cleveland State. This is a veteran group that is accustomed to playing in big games in the NCAA Tournament by now.

Pitt will always be a school that is football first in terms of fan popularity, and of course men’s basketball is second in that department. The resurgence of what Pitt is doing in other sports cannot be discounted however, and it appears this athletic program has more to offer than just those two sports.

The soccer program is capable of winning the national title this season, and it’s been that way for three years now. With an accomplished head coach like Vidovich driving the ship, it does not appear to be going away either. The volleyball program under Dan Fisher has been the best team in the athletic department for years now, and they are also a top 10 caliber team also capable of winning a national title. The women’s soccer team broke through for its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season.

When Pitt entered the ACC ten years ago, the athletic department seemed behind just about every school in the conference when it came to facilities. Football and basketball have become more competitive through the years. But with Victory Heights and other efforts, it seems Pitt is giving the rest of its athletic department a chance to compete at a national level and the teams have responded with sustained success.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Can Pitt hoops build some momentum?
After a dreadful road trip to Brooklyn for the Pitt basketball team in which they lost a pair of games to Michigan and VCU, the Panthers have bounced back with a pair of victories to even their record to 3-3 on the young season.

Pitt overcame slow starts in games against Alabama State and Fairleigh Dickinson earlier this week. In each game Pitt came out in the second half shooting the ball at a scorching hot rate, including a 20-for-26 showing against Fairleigh Dickinson on Tuesday, to roll to a pair of easy wins.

Of course those results are what should be expected of an ACC team playing against a pair of mid-major programs at home in November, but that has not always been the case for the Pitt basketball team in recent history.

Pitt can never really take any win for granted these days. Any sense of good play is a positive and an encouraging sign for this team — one because there have been limited moments of success in recent years, but also because this is a group still trying to develop all of its parts and come together as a team.

Pitt is a team that is anchored by a bevy of transfers, a star player coming off of an injury, and a pair of intriguing freshmen. So while beating Alabama State and Fairleigh Dickinson won’t necessarily move the needle forward about the team’s long term potential, this group simply needs to stack as many wins as possible while they can against lesser competition.

Pitt has a chance to do that again tonight with another non-conference game at home. The Panthers welcome William & Mary to town for a 7:00 p.m. tip at the Petersen Events Center. The Tribe are 2-3 on the season and were picked to finish 8th in the Colonial Athletic Association. They have a current ranking of 325 in the KenPom.com poll.

This is a team Pitt needs to beat.

I think we saw some encouraging signs lately from this team. John Hugley looked a little more in shape and ready to play this week than what he did in his season debut against Michigan. Jorge Diaz Graham is really raising some eyebrows, in a good way, with his potential. The Panthers have never really had a skilled 6’11” player like this.

Nike Sibande is contributing a bit more as he is coming off a knee injury from last season, and Jamarius Burton and Blake Hinson have continued to be consistent scoring threats in the early stages of this season.

Pitt shot the ball lights out on Tuesday against Fairleigh Dickinson, but we have also seen this team struggle to connect on outside shots through long stretches, however. They won’t be able to shoot it at a 20-of-26 clip every half they play moving forward, but more consistency there would be welcomed. The Panthers need to get more from starting point guard Nelly Cummings as well.

There are always things to work on in non-conference play, and games against the likes of William & Mary is where you try build confidence for the ACC slate.

The bulk of the ACC schedule looms at the beginning of January, but the first week of December will pose a considerable challenge to this team as well. Pitt has upcoming road games with Northwestern, North Carolina State, and Vanderbilt on the horizon — three power-five opponents.

Pitt has shown its capable of handling mid-majors, and taking care of business tonight is certainly a must, but they haven’t looked up to par when they face fellow power-five competition to this point.

Pitt needs to continue to build momentum, grow as a team, and stack wins. There are some important stretches of games in the coming weeks, and this team needs to show they can be up to task when the competition increases.

Who would make the biggest impact if they return for an extra season?
The end of the 2022 football season has brought up an important discussion in regards to Pitt football: Who exactly will be back on the team next year? With 27 seniors on the roster and 19 of them having the option to return next year due to the free COVID year, the outlook of Pitt’s team can look a lot different in 2023 depending on some decisions made by some current Panthers.

Pitt held its senior day last week against Duke and really nothing substantial came out of that day in terms of future intentions by the players. Some of the seniors took part of the pregame ceremony, but in the post game press conference said they are unsure of their decision. There were also players that did not participate in senior day and basically said the same. Nobody has made a definitive decision yet, but that should change once the regular season comes to an end. It is a confusing thing and we probably have one or two more years of this as well.

Pitt will have some returning starters off of this team back next season, but right now it is a question of who and how many? Given their success this season, you would have to think some star underclassmen like Izzy Abanikanda and Calijah Kancey may look towards the NFL Draft. Some seniors may be thinking the same, but I don’t know if anyone is a slam dunk to leave or return. So now we are simply playing a guessing game.

Some potential returnees would have bigger impacts than others, so here are my five picks among the senior class that could really help Pitt out should they choose to return next season.

Jared Wayne
Pitt’s leading wide receiver did not participate in Senior Day and said he was unsure of his future plans, but if he were to come back next season it would give this offense a big boost. Wayne has been the team’s best receiver in 2022, and has been solid throughout his career. He would have a chance to really climb Pitt’s record books in catches and receiving yards with a fifth season, as he quietly has had a very productive career.

Jake Kradel
Jake Kradel has over 30 starts in his career. The senior linemen walked at Senior Day, but his return would be a welcomed one as he can start at either center or right guard next season. I tend to think Kradel will be back, but walking at senior day certainly has made this a discussion at least.

SirVocea Dennis
SirVocea Dennis the heart and soul of the Pitt defense. He’s a three year starter and has led the team in tackles for the past two years. I’m still curious about where he fits into the NFL given his size and the position he plays, so his decision is interesting because he is a great college player. I just wonder if his pro prospects match what he is as a college player.

Marquis Williams
You never hear Marquis Williams’ name when you watch a Pitt football game, and that’s probably the best compliment you can give a cornerback. Williams garners plenty of respect from opposing offenses and does not see the ball thrown his way all that much. Williams is certainly on the smaller side, which could hurt his draft stock. He did not walk at senior day and getting him back at corner would be a big boost to the 2023 team.

Erick Hallett
Pitt senior safety Erick Hallett is just a smooth player and solid one at that. He just always seems to be in the right places and he leads the team with five takeaways this year (three picks, two fumble recoveries). The free safety spot is a pretty hard one to man in this defensive scheme. Damar Hamlin handled it very well and it was almost a seamless transition when Hallett stepped into the job. Getting one more year of Hallett anchoring the secondary would be huge for this team.

ONE PREDICTION

Pitt will get a rare win over Miami on Saturday
The Pitt Panthers do not play well against the Miami Hurricanes. They never have. The lack of success in this series dates back to the times when Miami was one of the premier programs in college football throughout the 80s and 90s and up through more recent times when Miami has been a program in turmoil that changes coaches every couple of seasons.

Pitt is 3-22 over the last 25 meetings…

The Panthers have lost four games straight in this series as well. Pitt’s last win was that famed upset back in 2017 when Kenny Pickett took down No. 2 Miami in his first career start. Since joining the ACC, Pitt is 2-7 against the Hurricanes, a slight upgrade from the Panthers’ 1-10 mark when both schools were in the Big East.

It really has been as one-sided as a game between two regular opponents can be, but I think Pitt bucks that trend on Saturday.

Pitt is roughly a touchdown favorite on the road. Miami is 5-6 this year and generally when the Hurricanes are down and out towards the end of the season, the effort dwindles down the stretch.

Given the unknown status of star quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, the Hurricanes might not be in great shape. Clemson has a good defense, and they limited Miami to 98 yards of offense last week in a 40-10 blowout. Pitt also has a really good defense. They should have the ability to shut the Hurricanes down as well.

I don’t think this game will be a blowout or anything, but I believe that Pitt’s three-game winning streak in November isn’t a fluke either.

Pat Narduzzi’s team is not playing great football overall with the same offensive struggles that have plagued them all season, but they are finding ways to win games and finish the season with some pride.

Miami is playing for bowl eligibility at their home field on senior day. There will be some motivation there for the Canes, but Pitt just seems like the team trending in a better direction at this stage of the season and I think they get it done on Saturday night.

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