Unknown scenario but familiar outcome as Hokies fall to Pitt

By David Teil

In five games this season, Virginia Tech has scored five rushing touchdowns. Saturday in Pittsburgh, they allowed six to a player.

There were many ways to look at the Hokies losing to the Panthers. Kedon Slovis shredding their exhausted secondary and Pitt stifling their lukewarm offense were chief among them.

Neither happened. Instead, Israel Abanikanda performed.

In a historic performance, Abanikanda abused Tech for 320 rushing yards and the aforementioned six scores in a 45-29 Panthers win.

“Obviously,” Hokies coach Brent Pry said, “it … bothers me a lot.”

First off, Pry is a defensive coach who has earned a solid reputation as a Penn State coordinator. Second, as a rookie head coach, he’s seen Tech (2-4, 1-2 ACC) lose in multiple ways this year.

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But just when the offense showed some life, and on an afternoon when the special teams scored a touchdown and the pass defense was serviceable, another XXL problem appeared.

The Hokies started the day 24th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 100.8 yards per game. They were 25th in average yards per carry from opponents at 3.1.

On Saturday, although against a quality fullback behind a seasoned offensive line, they were often helpless.

Certainly, the absence of winger TyJuan Garbutt, the team’s best defensive lineman, has been a problem. He played with a foot injury which eventually sidelined him.

But early on, Tech’s run defense was solid. Abanikanda’s first five runs scored minus 1 yard, and after the first three, on Pitt’s opening possession, many Panthers fans booed.

Not for long as Abanikanda scored on runs of 38, 17, 29, 5, 10 and, the knockout, 80 yards. His 320 yards are the most by a Hokies opponent and the most by an ACC player since Boston College’s Andre Williams set the conference record of 339 against NC State in 2013.

According to ESPN, Abanikanda is the first major conference player since Ricky Williams of Texas in 1998 to rush for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns in a game.

Abanikanda “played well,” said technical linebacker Keonta Jenkins, “but we just have to play better.”

Indeed, Tech didn’t tackle well, a lapse most evident on Abanikanda’s 17-yard touchdown. A host of defenders, primarily Cole Nelson, initially stopped Abanikanda with no gain on the play but was unable to finish.

Even more egregious were the Hokies’ failures to close the gaps, witness Abanikanda going untouched on at least three of his scores.

“There are fundamental things about running the defense that we didn’t do well today,” Pry said.

Still, despite all the missteps, Tech was well positioned to take a lead in the fourth quarter.

After the Panthers (4-2, 1-1) scored 24 straight points to take a 31-16 lead, the Hokies looked finished. But in Pry’s words, they “recovered,” a credit to their determination.

Grant Wells threw a 43-yard pass to Da’Wain Lofton and PJ Prioleau blocked a punt, which Nyke Johnson recovered for a touchdown. Suddenly Tech was within 31-29 and driving.

But after catching a pass for an apparent first down near midfield, Kaleb Smith (nine catches, 152 yards) lost a fumble. Moreover, he entered the tent of the wounded, not to return.

Abanikanda then buried Tech with his final two touchdowns.

“It’s the closest we’ve come to playing complementary ball,” Pry said.

Closest since a 27-10 win over Boston College in Week 2, but not that close even with Malachi Thomas restarting the running game with 84 yards and a touchdown on his season debut.

A false start from Jesse Hanson followed immediately by a late game penalty on the placement team doomed a drive. A senseless personal foul on offensive tackle Parker Clements derailed another scoring opportunity. All-ACC punter Peter Moore had his worst outing.

Last week, Tech was a 9½-point underdog in North Carolina, the biggest gap favoring the Tar Heels over the Hokies in at least 25 years, according to Odds Shark’s database.

On Saturday, Pitt was favored by 14½, the biggest gap favoring the Panthers against Tech in at least 25 years.

Notice the trend? People don’t trust the Hokies.

After three consecutive losses of at least 16 points, the question is whether they believe in themselves.

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