Pittsburgh Georgia Tech Preview Football

FILE - Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi wears a face shield as he watches his team play against Notre Dame during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Pittsburgh. Narduzzi says Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims' growth in making decisions is impressive for a freshman. Pitt's fierce pass rush will be a new test for Sims' ability to remain poised in the pocket on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – After the Pitt running game got off to a good start by rushing for 223 yards against Massachusetts in the opening game of the season, the unit seemed to revert to last year’s form against Tennessee, as the Panthers rushed for under 100 yards against the Volunteers.

“We’re trying to mix it up and be balanced, and I think right now we have some balance to our offense, but you've also got a quarterback that can throw it,” coach Pat Narduzzi said at his Monday press conference. “You got some talented receivers, and we've got to spread the ball around.”

Pitt will face Western Michigan on Saturday at Heinz Field, with kickoff slated for noon.

While the play calling was balanced against the Volunteers, the production was not. The Panthers rushed 45 times for 96 yards, while throwing the ball 37 times for 301 yards. Leading rusher Israel Abanikanda posted 43 rushing yards against the Volunteers, only 24 more than quarterback Kenny Pickett had in Knoxville.

Narduzzi isn’t too concerned with those numbers, since he believed the Panthers were able to run when they needed to against Tennessee – particularly in a four-minute drill to end the game, when the Panthers rushed on five straight plays for two first downs that allowed them to run out the clock.

“A consistent run game is based on how you define it,” Narduzzi said. “I define a consistent run game with four minutes to go in the game and we had to run it and we're not going to throw the ball in the air and throw an incomplete pass to stop the clock and, when they have one time out left, we ran the ball.”

'Live and learn'

Narduzzi conceded that his team had some misfires in all three phases of the game that will need to be fixed, but was encouraged his team still won despite the miscues.

“There was some missed execution in really all three phases. The worst would probably be special teams, which we have to clean up,” Narduzzi said. “Always say it's nice to have missed execution and W's at the same time, and that's what we were able to get is have some poor execution, live and learn from it, and then it will be a focus this week.

“I'll be all over special teams, and we'll get that stuff fixed.”

Special teams had a rough go of it on Saturday, beginning with a blocked punt that led to the Volunteers going up 7-0 just 86 seconds into the game.

The coverage unit struggled on returns, giving Tennessee an average starting field position of their own 35. Sophomore wide receiver Jaylon Barden was replaced on kickoff and punt return duty during the game by Melquise Stovall, after Barden caught a kickoff at the goal line and was stopped at Pitt’s 8-yard line.

Stovall is now listed on the depth chart as the lead returner on both kicks and punts, supplanting Barden in those spots.

Narduzzi says Barden hadn’t played in front of such a large crowd before, and he believes he’ll continue to improve.

“We have a lot of faith in him, and he'll learn from it and we'll get better,” Narduzzi said. “To me, you put that as a judgment call, and he has to know when and where, but it's just like telling a returner not to catch the ball inside the 8-yard line, and how many times do you see it happen. You get in the game and things happen. So he'll figure that out.”

“I put it on coaching as well,” Narduzzi continued. “Anytime you can talk about that, whether it's good or bad, there's coaching involved, and we just have to do a better job coaching him and all of our guys in some of those situations that we ran into.”

Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pitt football and basketball for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey

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