In Week 8, the Deacs are back home to take on the conference opponent that they have played the least, the Pittsburgh Panthers. Despite Pitt joining the ACC a decade ago in 2013, this game will be Wake’s 2nd regular season game and 3rd game total in school history against the Panthers. The Deacs have still not made the trip to Pittsburgh, and with realignment exploding the way it is, there’s technically a chance it could never happen.
- Opponent: Opponent: Pittsburgh Panthers
- Date: Saturday, October 21st, 2023
- Location: Acrisure Stadium | Pittsburgh, PA
- Vegas Win Total O/U: 6.5
- 2022 Record: 9-4, 5-3 in ACC
- Previous Matchup: Wake 21—Pitt 45 (2021)
- All time vs Wake Forest: 2-0
For most of their time in the ACC, I feel like Pittsburgh has been an “out of sight, out of mind” team for Wake Forest because—as previously mentioned—the two teams have played 1 regular season game in a decade. For the sake of comparison, in that same time span, Wake and Notre Dame have played 3 regular season games. Because of that, it may be a surprise to Wake fans that Pitt has consistently been one of the best teams in the ACC in recent history. Since Pat Narduzzi took over in 2015, Pitt has the 2nd best conference record (behind Clemson) and is the only non-Clemson team to win the ACC Championship. They’ve also won 8 or more games 5 times and have just 1 losing season over that time span.
Pitt, like Wake Forest, took a small step back after winning their division in 2021. The Panthers lost star QB Kenny Pickett, and his replacement Kedon Slovis struggled to match the production of his predecessor. A season after Pickett lit up the stat sheet with 42 passing touchdowns, Slovis managed just 2,400 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions through the air. Despite that, the offense was still pretty solid for the Panthers last season, averaging 31.3 points and 406 yards per game.
In an attempt to bolster the offense back to an ACC championship caliber unit this season, Pittsburgh turned to a man Wake knows well: Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec. While Jurkovec was once slated as a first round NFL draft pick, he struggled last season behind an offensive line made up of walk-ons and defensive players, throwing for just 1,711 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. That shouldn’t be an issue for him this season, as the Pitt offensive line returns 3 starters from a group that allowed just 19 sacks last season. Jurkovec won’t have anyone near as talented as Zay Flowers to throw to this season, but he’ll have some decent receivers with Konata Mumpfield (58 rec, 551 yards, 1 TD) and Bub Means (27 rec, 401 yards, 2 TD) returning to go alongside the addition of Florida transfer Daejon Reynolds (11 rec, 244 yards, 2 TD). It should also be noted that current Pittsburgh OC Frank Cignetti Jr. was the OC at Boston College during Jurkovec’s best season in 2020.
The ground game will probably be solid with the aforementioned 3 returning starters on the O-line, but Pitt is going to have to replace a lot of yards that were earned by star running back Israel Abanikanda, who picked up multiple All-American honors and was the 143rd pick of the 2023 NFL Draft. Abanikanda led the Panthers with 1,431 yards on the ground last season, averaged an impressive 6 yards per carry, and was #1 in the nation in rushing touchdowns with 20. The bulk of the carries for the Panthers will now likely fall on Sun Bowl MVP Rodney Hammond, but replacing the production of Abanikanda is not going to be easy.
Defensively, this might be a tough game for the Deacs. If you think back to the Wake’s worst offensive outings over the past couple of seasons, a few teams come to mind: Clemson, Louisville, NC State, and Pittsburgh. All these teams have something in common—they get after the quarterback. When the defense is putting constant pressure on Wake’s QB and blowing up the mesh on the RPO, the Deacs really struggle to move the ball and put up points. The Panthers, unfortunately, are consistently one of the best teams in the nation at getting to the QB—over the past 5 seasons, Pitt has somewhere around 225 sacks, which comes out to about 45 per year. Last season was no different, as the Panthers finished the season 2nd in the nation (behind Louisville) with 48 sacks. Even with Pitt losing a ton of talent on the front line, including unanimous All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Calijah Kancey (14.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks), Narduzzi’s aggressive defensive seems to always be able to reload and torture opposing quarterbacks.
With that aggressive pass rush, Wake should be able to get plenty of 1 on 1 matchups in the secondary. Pitt has two really great corners in Marlin Devonshire (8 passes defended, 3 int) and Marquise Williams (2 int), but they will have to replace their top safety Errick Hallett II, who was selected by the Jaguars in the 6th round of the NFL draft. The battle between the Pitt secondary and the Wake wide receivers on 50-50 balls will likely be a deciding factor in how many points the Deacs can score in this one.
Whether the Panthers are a better offensive team this season may depend completely on which version of Phil Jurkovec they get. In 2020, Jurkovec looked like an easy NFL first round pick; in the two years since, he’s thrown for just 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and dealt with a ton of injuries. The defense kind of scares me, as Wake really struggles against aggressive, blitz heavy teams that put pressure on the QB. Hopefully the coaching staff will be ready for that and have something to slow down the rush to give Griffis a chance to make plays. I feel like this is the first real toss-up game of the season, so I’ll be biased and give it to the home team.