It is never good to allow one running back to amass over 300 yards in a game. Nor is it good to allow that same runner to score six touchdowns. Never.
So how can there be a “silver lining” to that kind of loss for the Hokies?
Well, there were a lot of positive aspects of Saturday’s game for Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, they were grossly overshadowed by a record-breaking performance of one player on the other team.
Israel Abanikanda carried the ball 36 times for 320 yards and six touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s 45-29 victory over Virginia Tech (2-4; 1-2 ACC). The junior running back broke Pitt legend Tony Dorsett’s school record (303 yards) that was set in 1975. He also tied the school record for touchdowns in a game (Norman Budd, 1910). He broke the record for most rushing yards in a single game against the Hokies (Giovanni Bernard, UNC, 2012 – 262 yards) and tied the mark for TD’s in a game vs Tech with six (Willis McGahee, Miami, 2002).
At first glance, this looks like it was a romp. But those who watched the game saw a tight first half and a mad comeback attempt by the Hokies to make this a two-point ballgame in the fourth quarter. So yes, Abanikanda was the clear difference maker and the Hokies’ ultimate demise, but this was not otherwise a bad performance by the Virginia Tech.
Tech Showed Some Resilience
Although Virginia Tech did not score on its first two drives, the team looked like it had put the UNC game behind them. The defense was swarming on their first appearance, tacking Abanikanda for two losses and no gain in a three-and-out, but unfortunately that did not last.
However, when Pitt scored a touchdown on their second drive, the Hokies responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive, then they scored on their next two possessions. Pittsburgh was in for a fight.
The game went to halftime with Pitt leading 17-16. It looked as if the Panthers were ready to put this one away in the second half, as they went up by fifteen late in the third quarter. But the Hokies again fought back, scoring a touchdown just before the end of the third.
On the very next possession, Virginia Tech blocked a punt and fell on it in the end zone, bringing the Hokies within two points. Tech went for two on the conversion, with a great play call – the shovel pass. However, Pitt snuffed it out, leaving the Hokies down by two points.
The defense made a great stand, forcing another three-and-out, but Tech fumbled at midfield and Pitt converted that into a touchdown. Tech responded with a nice drive and a field goal attempt, but Will Ross missed. Abanikanda broke free for an 80 yard score on the next play, and that was the final nail in the coffin.
The Hokies Left 15 Points off the Scoreboard
Let’s be clear – Virginia Tech could not stop Abanikanda, and that cost them the game. However, despite such a poor performance there, the Hokies had their chances. But they made too many mistakes. Eight penalties and a costly fumble were among the many mistakes that negated any chance for the Hokies to overcome Abanikanda’s record performance.
The Hokies also failed to convert a lot of scoring opportunities. They could have easily put another fifteen points on the board.
On their second drive of the game, the Hokies had a fourth and one on the Pitt 29-yard line. Head Coach Brent Pry wasted no time in deciding to go for it, but guard Jesse Hanson moved early, backing up the Hokies. Pry changed his mind and sent the field goal unit out, but they took too long to set up and were flagged for delay of game. Faced with fourth and ten from the Pitt 38, Pry then elected to punt. Three lost points.
On Tech’s first touchdown drive, Will Ross’ extra point was blocked. One lost point.
Virginia Tech kicked a field goal on their fourth drive. They moved 65 yards and had first and goal from the Pitt two-yard line. The next three plays netted one yard, and the Hokies settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown. Four lost points
Just prior to halftime, the Hokies had the ball first and ten on the 23 yard line going in. With 32 seconds remaining, Parker Clements was flagged for a facemask, pushing the Hokies back. Wells was sacked on the next play for a loss of eleven. Faced with second and a mile, Tech ran the clock down and threw an unsuccessful Hail Mary. Three more lost points.
When the Hokies scored their touchdown off the blocked punt, they went for two in an attempt to tie. They were stopped. Had the first extra point not been blocked, this would have been a kick. One lost point.
Finally, with 8:08 left in the game and down by nine, Virginia Tech attempted a 36-yard field goal. Ross’ kick sailed wide left. Another three lost points.
Fifteen points. The Hokies lost by sixteen. Granted, there were too many other mistakes that prevented a Hokies win, but converting these points changes the momentum, possibly changes play calling. It very well could have resulted in a different outcome. So despite the improvement by the Hokies, there are still areas left to work on.
Reality Check – Pitt is the Program that the Hokies Should Emulate – Kind of
As much as Hokie fans despise Pat Narduzzi, they would be wise to recognize that his program is the one ACC program that Virginia Tech should emulate (mostly). Yes, we can do without the whining and sideline antics from the coach (which, admittedly, has been toned down the last two years), but Pitt has developed a brand built on toughness and player retention and development.
When teams play Pitt, they can expect a tough, physical game. The Panthers play with an edge, with swagger. The Hokies used to play like that and they should strive to get back to that style of play – minus the extra shenanigans of course (how did SirVocea Dennis NOT get flagged for grabbing and holding that official’s arm on Saturday??)
The Panthers also lean on the run game. Yes, Saturday’s game was a bit extreme, but the Panthers are averaging 193 rushing yards per game this year. Last year, with Kenny Pickett throwing a lot in the Mark Whipple offense, the Panthers still averaged 152 yards per game on the ground. In the last four victories over the Hokies, the Panthers rushed for 1178 yards, good for 294.5 per game. As Brent Pry said prior to the season, it is difficult to win games when you cannot stop the run. (How unfortunately prophetic he was this weekend.)
Possibly the best attribute of Narduzzi’s program that the Hokies should replicate is how he is able to develop – and retain – his players. Jordan Addison’s million-dollar NIL induced transfer notwithstanding, players in the Pitt program tend to stick around for four or five years – even six with the Covid year of eligibility. Fifteen of their starters on offense and defense are seniors or redshirt seniors. Four starters are juniors. So only three starters are sophomores. Eight of the nine interior linemen on both sides of the ball are seniors as well. They are an old team.
They are also not a highly rated group of recruits. Only eight current players on Pitt’s roster were four-star recruits out of high school. Clearly Narduzzi and his staff are developing their players – and bringing in those that will fit their system. Israel Abanikanda was a three star recruit (with offers from mid-level P5 schools and several G5 schools). Kenny Pickett was another three star recruit. Narduzzi and company have created a culture that makes his players want to stay, and they do a good job of making them better. The Hokies staff should take notes.
Next Up for the Hokies
Virginia Tech returns home this Saturday to face the Miami Hurricanes. These two teams have played every year since 1992, but this is the first time since then that both teams come into this game with losing records. Also, with the ACC’s new 3-5-5 schedule, this will be Miami’s last trip to Lane Stadium until 2026. The game is sold out. Enjoy it Hokie fans – you won’t see it for four more years!
The Hokies will try to end their three-game losing streak. Miami is on their own three game skid, so there is a lot at stake for both teams. Usually this game has greater implications for the winning team. This year it is the opposite. The winner ends their winless October. The loser’s streak goes to four in a row. Ouch.
Tyler Van Dyke and the Miami passing game will put pressure on the Virginia Tech secondary. Can the Hokies negative the Canes’ passing game with an effective pass rush, something that has been missing for two games? Can their corners compensate for the injury to Dorian Strong? And can the Hokies’ offense keep improving like they did against Pitt? Tune in locally to RSN at 12:30 to find out!
Inside the Numbers
Israel Abanikanda ran for 320 yards on 36 carries. But they seemed to be all or nothing runs. Eight of his carries went for negative yards (-1 to -3). Three went for no gain. And seven went for short yardage of one to three yards. His net yards rushing in those 18 carries was ONE YARD. That means that he gained 319 yards in only 18 carries!!!!
Abanikanda’s six touchdown runs were as follows: 38 yards, 17 yards, 29 yards, 5 yards, 10 yards, and 80 yards. So his six scoring carries went for 179 yards. His scoring runs were 53 yards more than Virginia Tech totaled on the ground for the day!
Virginia Tech’s defense had eleven tackles for loss. They forced six “three-and-outs.” Too bad they struggled to tackle Abanikanda on those other eighteen runs.
Kaleb Smith had nine catches for 152 yards, which was a career high. It earned him ACC Wide Receiver of the Week honors. He did have a key fumble though. On that play, Pitt’s defensive end John Morgan III dropped into coverage and jarred the ball loose when he hit Smith. Morgan, a senior, is listed at 265 pounds. Smith is 222. No wonder the ball came loose.
Hokie running back Malachi Thomas’ first carry went for a touchdown. The sophomore had a small crease up the middle and ran tough for five yards and the score. He finished with 84 total rushing yards, including one beautiful 29-yard draw play on third and ten. His success makes me think – did the line get better? Or is he just that much better of a between-the-tackles kind of runner?
Grant Wells finished the game with 277 yards passing on 25 completions. That is a good stat line. However, he threw 47 times, and that is a little too much reliance on the pass for the Hokie offense. He also had one interception, but that was a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, so it almost doesn’t count : )
William Ross missed his first kick of the year. Twice. His first extra point attempt was blocked. This was the first missed extra point for the Hokies since 2016. Ross later missed a field goal, which was his first missed field goal of the year.
Alan Tisdale has been cleared to play! The senior has been placed atop the depth chart at WILL linebacker for this week’s contest against Miami. Tisdale had been sidelined with undisclosed “eligibility issues,” but apparently, they have been resolved and Tisdale will return to the team this weekend. He will provide much needed depth for this defense.
What a great moment for Virginia Tech’s Prioleau family when redshirt freshman PJ, who wears his father’s #20, blocked a punt that was recovered by Nyke Johnson for a Hokie touchdown. Tech fans remember father Pierson fondly, now a safeties coach for VT, but first a standout defensive back and then an NFL back. PJ’s punt block was a momentum shift, much like Pierson’s pick-six was in 1998 at Boston College. What a special day for the Prioleaus!
Late last week, Virginia Tech lost a recruit when three-star cornerback Misun Kelley decommited. Tech fans of course are not happy about this. But let’s be real – the way the season is going, would you be surprised if no one decommitted? Yes, it is disappointing, but if a seventeen-year-old changes his mind and wants to go elsewhere, that is ok. It is better to do that now rather than in the transfer portal a year or two down the line. At least Tech gets that scholarship back. Pry and his staff can use it to find those guys who are looking to be in Blacksburg, who want to be part of this process. Good luck to Kelley, and good luck to Pry in searching for those guys who want to be Hokies.
The formula for Brent Pry to be successful is similar to that of Frank Beamer when he started in 1987. Develop – and retain – the recruits. Start winning, particularly with strong defense and special teams. Then, as we get better, convince a big in-stater to come to the school to be the next Cornell Brown or Michael Vick, a guy who will change the program.
Did anyone catch the end of the UNC-Miami game? Once DeAndre Boykins intercepted Tyler Van Dyke with 6 seconds left, he flashed the “U-down” sign (like the “Horns down”). I actually chuckled when he did that. Not that I’m a fan of that behavior…but let’s hope the Hokies have reason to do that Saturday should they choose to!
Virginia Tech has now held the Commonwealth Cup for 669 consecutive days!
To read more of my articles on Virginia Tech football, click here.
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