If Pitt fans were looking for an intense, thrilling scrimmage on Saturday, Heinz Field wasn’t the place to find it. The Gold team dominated the Blue 30-0 in the 2021 Pitt football spring game.
After a COVID-19 pause within the program pushed the game back a week, the Panthers took the field for their annual intra-squad scrimmage for the first time since 2019. Pitt cancelled the 2020 event as sports across the globe came to a screeching halt early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team held its spring game draft on Wednesday, setting the rosters for Saturday’s duel. The Gold team, led by tight ends coach Tim Salem, featured super senior quarterback Kenny Pickett and redshirt senior cornerback Damarri Mathis as captains. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates headed the Blue squad, with super senior tight end Lucas Krull and linebacker Phil Campbell III as captains.
Many fans may have hoped for their first glimpse at Pickett following his decision to return for a fifth year, but the spring game is no time to risk an injury to a valuable player. Pickett took the first three snaps — a handoff, short pass and incomplete throw — leading to a quick punt. By the time the Blue offense returned to the field, Pickett strolled the sidelines with his shoulder pads off and a white hat on his head.
Junior quarterback Nick Patti wasted no time getting his squad down the field on the Gold team’s first possession, finding super senior wideout Taysir Mack for a 36-yard gain. The Blue defense stopped the drive from there for the only time of the entire first half, and redshirt first-year kicker Ben Sauls split the uprights from 35 yards out for the game’s first points.
With Pickett’s day over, redshirt sophomore Joey Yellen took the reins for the Blue team. Despite a few early gains, the unit came away empty handed, punting back to Patti and the Gold offense. Facing pressure from the pass rush, Patti scampered for 16 yards and a first down to provide some breathing room. A few plays later, he lobbed a perfect toss on the run to Krull in stride for a touchdown.
“It was a great throw,” Krull said. “When I broke out I saw Nick making a play in the pocket, stepping up and throwing a completely beautiful ball right where I needed to go. He led me perfectly and I was able to track it down, so I was really proud of him to really step up and make that play for us. It was a huge momentum shift for our team.”
That series ended Patti’s day, as redshirt sophomore Davis Beville came in at quarterback on the Gold team’s next possession. The South Carolina native picked up right where his counterpart left off, marching the offense down the field with a slew of short, accurate throws. Beville punched it in from the 1-yard line, extending the Gold lead to 17.
“I think it starts with the leadership in that huddle and the guys playing for them,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Both [Patti and Beville] made plays with their feet and made some people miss.”
First-year quarterback Nate Yarnell made his debut for the Blue squad, but couldn’t find any more success than Pickett or Yellen. A missed field goal gave the ball back to Beville, who completed an efficient three passes for a combined 69 yards in 31 seconds with little time left on the clock. His 25-yard touchdown throw to junior wide receiver Jared Wayne put the Gold squad ahead 24-0 at the half.
The only bright spot for the Blue team in the first 20 minutes was sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda. Narduzzi had built up hype surrounding the running back battle this week, saying the Brooklyn product had surged into the competition for the No. 1 spot with junior Vincent Davis. Abanikanda said the comments helped fuel his fire.
“It’s competition everyday, so it probably just made me more excited to compete with these good football players,” he said. “[Pitt running backs coach Andrew Powell] tells us ‘who’s going to be the one to separate today. Who’s going to be the one to be great today.”
Abanikanda made the most of his limited touches on Saturday, finishing with 77 yards on six carries. He had easily the best numbers from his position group, with only redshirt senior Todd Sibley coming anywhere close to Abanikanda’s production. Abanikanda credited the offensive line for much of his success on Saturday.
“The O-line was really great, I love my O-lineman,” he said. “I was able to be patient, I see the holes developing. Me and the O-lineman had good chemistry.”
Narduzzi likened Abanikanda’s patience to that of Kansas City Chiefs running back Le’Veon Bell.
“Izzy’s been strong all spring,” he said. “He’s jacked up. He’s playing fast.”
With the result out of question, the second half saw some fresh faces looking to make a name for themselves. Sibley slipped past the defense for a nine-yard touchdown score in the third quarter, but Sauls missed the extra point attempt, wrapping up the scoring for the day.
The fourth quarter looked a little sloppy from an offensive sense with several avoidable turnovers. Redshirt sophomore running back Daniel Carter fumbled the ball away for the Blue squad, and Yellen threw an interception in his return to the field to junior defensive back A.J. Woods. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Eli Kosanovich threw a pick as well.
With the conclusion of spring ball, Pitt will turn its focus to the summer stage of the offseason. The Panthers will return to Heinz Field to open the 2021 season against UMass on Sept. 4.
“We had a great spring,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a launching point for our summer conditioning program and get it cranked up for the ‘21 season.”
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