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Countdown Q&A, Week 8: Pitt Panthers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pitt v Michigan State Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a nice relaxing bye week where we didn’t need to worry about blown leads, missed tackles, or open receivers, I’m ready to get hurt again....but hopefully Saturday evening turns into shouts of joy, instead of shouts from a “pitt” of despair.

This week the Cards and the Panthers battle it out in a night cap on the ‘Perfect Brownie Pan Network’ so I reached out to none other than Michael Parra from ‘Cardiac Hill’ to talk Pitt football, and mix in a little round ball to keep it fresh. Lets see what Michael had to say....

While the uttering of “Pittsburgh” brings to life more memories on the hardwood than the gridiron, the battle between the two programs, who have been chasing each other through conferences the last 46 years, is fairly close. Pitt leads the all time series 10-8 and owns a two game winning streak from ACC battles in 2015 and in 2020. Before we get too deep in the weeds for the 2022 contest, what is your perception of the Louisville program and any memories of past games or contests between the two?

Louisville is a tough program to get a read on. Malik Cunningham is a dynamic dual-threat QB leading the team in both passing and rushing. Still, a 1-3 record in ACC play isn’t good. The Syracuse loss doesn’t look bad anymore but the loss to Boston College still looms. The last matchup sticks out to me the most not only because it’s the most recent but because that is what Pitt will look to do again this game. The Panthers ran the ball 40 times and sacked Malik Cunningham seven times in route to a 23-20 victory where both teams came into the contest ranked. That same hype isn’t there with both teams unranked just trying to keep pace in ACC play, but still should be an entertaining game.

Starting the season off pretty strong with a 3-1 record and the lone loss to a very good Tennessee squad in OT, the Panthers had a head scratcher against Georgia Tech but then handled business in a record setting fashion against Virginia Tech. Sitting at 4-2 I’m still not sure what to make of this Pitt team. What are the strengths of the team we should be looking for? What about areas that give you concern?

The strength of the offense falls solely on the rushing attack. Israel Abanikanda has run wild on opposing defenses despite opponents stacking the box against him. On defense, it’s all about getting after the quarterback highlighted by defensive tackle Calijah Kancey. With Erick Hallett Jr in the secondary, opponents don’t want to be in obvious passing downs.

A major concern and what has had everyone that follows the Panthers’ offense is the passing game. Naturally losing the offensive coordinator plus Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison was going to cause a setback. Frank Cignetti’s offense and Kedon Slovis have not been able to establish a rhythm and it’s been a cause for concern. On defense, Pitt has gotten better against the run. There have been moments during ACC play where opposing offenses have been able to run on them and keep this pass rush at bay.

In their last game Israel Abanikanda went full blown ̶”̶B̶a̶r̶r̶y̶ ̶S̶a̶n̶d̶e̶r̶s̶”̶ Tony Dorsett and dropped over three bills worth of rushing yards on the Hokies. Was this a “finally he shows out” or a just a career day that will likely not be matched again? In other words, Michael, we need to put eight in the box, or what?

Rhode Island v Pittsburgh Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The offense has been the Abanikanda show all season long. After a week one injury to starter Rodney Hammond, Abanikanda has consistently carried the offense with him being the catalyst of the offense each week besides the Georgia Tech game where he was forced out due to injury. The Cardinals will look to stack the box and try to take the run game away. With Abanikanda at 830 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 6.4 yards per carrying, the Cardinals should go all out to try to make the passing attack beat them. This week should also see the return of Rodney Hammond so it will be interesting to see how the running back rotation looks with him back in the fold.

The departure of a championship QB who is now starting games in the NFL is tough to replace, but it appears Kedon Slovis is having some challenges this season at the signal caller position for Pitt. For a Cards defense who has struggled against the pass this year, should we be concerned that Slovis is another QB who looks to break out of a slump against Louisville? Where is he underperforming?

Panthers fans will hope that this week against Louisville with an extra week to prepare, will be the week that the passing offense can finally get right. Though there was that same hope against Rhode Island, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech who all have issues stopping passing attacks and yet the Panthers still couldn’t get it going. Pat Narduzzi stated this week that the team did a lot of self-scouting and that they aren’t going to over-coach Slovis and simplify things for him going forward. Frank Cignetti runs a pro-style offense that makes the quarterback read the entire field and make progressions that have seemed to clash with what Slovis likes to do. Slovis is at his best with quick drops and getting the ball out fast in the short and intermediate range. So unless the offense is tweaked a bit more to highlight was Slovis likes to do I’m not sure they will get this passing game going.

When I think Pitt, I think Brandin Knight, Dejuan Blair, and Sam Young…but after that I think “defense” and the wear you down approach the football program has taken for what seems like decades. How is the Pitt defense this year? Who should we keep an eye on?

Miami v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh defense has shined when the offense has given them a chance to stay rested. Calijah Kancey was on a lot of midseason All-American teams and for good reason. Even with facing double teams, Kancey has been a force generating pressure up the middle and making quarterbacks hurry up their throws. Kancey taking up multiple blockers has helped free up linebackers SirVocea Dennis and Solomon DeShields get home and lead the team in sacks. In the secondary Erick Hallett Jr is the corner you want to avoid. With three interceptions which could easily be doubled taking into account only some of the drops, Hallett will be someone unlikely to be picked on.

Side note: Less than a month from college basketball starting. How’s Capel and the boys looking for ‘22-’23?

Some of the hype of the season lost some steam after the disturbing allegations against Dior Johnson, who was the highest-ranked recruit in Capel’s tenure. The team has veteran guard play to try to help John Hugley IV with improved perimeter shooting. Still, in the ACC preseason poll, Pitt sits at 14. If Pitt can finish 10th in the ACC I think most will take it.

Cards need this win to have a shot at postseason play, in my opinion, and the homecoming crowd will hopefully bring the juice in a late night contest on ACC Network. Before the season this appeared to be a tight one, and now seven weeks in I think it’s still a fairly balanced matchup. How does this one play out?

This should be a close game because with the style that Pitt plays it’s hard to blow out any opponents. Pitt has to stay disciplined against a dual-threat quarterback like Malik Cunningham and they did better against Wells after getting gashed by Sims. I think this game will be once again decided by three points and I have the Panthers winning 27-24.


Big thank you to Michael for his time and answers. You can follow Cardiac Hill on twitter right here, and Michael on twitter right here. Michael covers all things Pitt, the New York Giants, and 17th century earwax sculptures....or maybe just two of those things. Cards need this win bad to get some momentum going heading into a brutal stretch, one which may in fact be the most brutal in the country. Night game in the oven, homecoming crowd, bye week...Pitt Panthers, Peach Pit, pit of snakes, don't matter...Cards by sixty. #GoCards