Aaron McFarling are on the road to Pittsburgh today. We have three goals: eat at Primanti Bros., cover some Virginia Tech football and hit up a casino in West Virginia on the way back. We’ll call that the Pitt Trip Trifecta.
Anyway, while we’re on the way up, here’s a matchups post to fill your time.
Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the game in the comments section below. And be sure to leave your predicted score. We’ll see who has it right after Saturday’s game.
No. 13/13 Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
- Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
- When: Saturday, 12:01 p.m.
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Virginia Tech 2-0, 1-0 ACC; Pittsburgh 0-2, 0-1 Big East
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 7-4
- Last meeting: Panthers won 31-28 in Pittsburgh in 2003
- Line: Virginia Tech by 10
When Virginia Tech passes
Something hasn’t quite clicked all the time for Virginia Tech’s passing game. Yes, quarterback Logan Thomas has 442 yards and four touchdowns to no interceptions through two games, but he’s only completing 59 percent of his passes. He’s been more accurate in the past. The Hokies are solid in their receiving game, with Marcus Davis (8 catches, 116 yards), Corey Fuller (7-126) and Dyrell Roberts (7-55) all getting involved. The o-line has given up four sacks in two games, although the pass protection hasn’t necessarily been bad so far. The Hokies have thrown plenty of WR screens that opponents are starting to get wise to. It’ll be interesting to see if they try to stretch the field at all with some deeper passes.
Although Pitt’s pass defense statistically isn’t that bad (191 ypg, 38th nationally), it gave up three touchdowns through the air in an embarrassing 31-17 loss to FCS Youngstown State in the opener. Cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts, a redshirt freshman, and Cullen Christian, a sophomore, are first-year starters. But the safeties — Jarred Holley, Ray Vinopal, Andrew Taglianetti and Jason Hendricks – are the perhaps the strongest part of the defense. Holley and Hendricks rank third and fourth on the team with 16 and 11 tackles, respectively. The big problem might be up front. Pitt has one sack through two games and has forced no turnovers. No wonder the defense is struggling.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies haven’t lined up and run it down anyone’s throats yet, which has to be a concern. All four of the running backs have averages higher than 4.3 yards, but Tech didn’t overwhelm FCS Austin Peay on the line last week. The o-line hasn’t been nearly as physical as the coaches have hoped. The good news is that tailback Michael Holmes has been solid, with 94 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries so far. Tech really hasn’t gotten J.C. Coleman, the presumed No. 2 back, too involved yet (his fumble on the opening possession last week didn’t help). And ever since the first quarter of the Georgia Tech opener, coaches haven’t called Thomas’ number on read options much. Expect that to change against Pittsburgh.
Why is that? Because Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux got to the edge and wreaked havoc on the ground against Pitt last week, running six times for 117 yards. The Bearcats ran 31 times for 258 yards, with a 59-yard touchdown run to start the game. Part of it is Pitt’s youth up front. Five players in the Panthers’ starting front seven are new starters. Linebacker Shane Gordon leads the team with 17 tackles, but opponents are running for 6.01 yards per carry on Pitt, which is allowing 231.5 yards per game on the ground (106th nationally). If the Hokies can’t run on this crew, it’s a sign that something is wrong.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Pittsburgh passes
Would you believe that Tino Sunseri has not been all that bad? He’s completed 64.2 percent of his passes, throwing for 517 yards and two touchdowns to one interception. Yes, there was the terrible, lofted incompletion just before halftime against Cincinnati that allowed the clock to run out before the Panthers could kick a field goal last week, but he’s been OK. Receivers Mike Shanahan (11 catches, 113 yards) and Devin Street (9-105) have been decent targets (at 6-5, 225, Shanahan’s a big one). The problem has been up front. After keeping Sunseri protected in the opener, the Panthers gave up six sacks to Cincinnati last Thursday.
The Hokies have put pressure on quarterbacks but haven’t gotten to them a whole lot. They have 17 quarterback hurries through two games but only three sacks (playing run-first Georgia Tech might have a lot to do with those totals, although Tech only had one sack against Austin Peay last week). This line has guys who can get to the quarterback (James Gayle and J.R. Collins in particular), so this might be the game the Hokies start bumping up those totals. Free safety Detrick Bonner is probable after missing most of the week of practice with a leg injury. His presence is huge, since Tech’s depth falls off quick in the secondary. Cornerback Antone Exum had a rough outing last week, getting beaten off the line a couple of times. He’ll need better technique as the level of receivers increase as the season progresses. The Hokies have only allowed 158 yards through the air so far, but that’s skewed by the competition they’ve faced. This will be a tougher task.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Pittsburgh runs
Panthers running back Ray Graham is still trying to get back to full strength after ACL surgery last year. The first-team All-Big East pick from last year has 174 yards on 33 carries this year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. But his backups are intriguing too. Isaac Bennett has 66 rushing yards and the team’s only rushing touchdown. And true freshman Rushel Shell is the Pennsylvania high school career rushing leader with a bright future (he was suspended for the opener but got his first action against Cincinnati). Paul Chryst earned his reputation for running the ball as an offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Against Cincy, Pitt’s running backs averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Surprisingly, the Hokies have been a susceptible on the ground. They played a great game against the run in the opener against Georgia Tech’s spread option, but there were a number of busts that allowed Austin Peay to run for big yards. The Governors, in fact, finished with 159 rushing yards. That was against a defense shuttling different lineups in and out of the game, but still, it’s somewhat concerning for Bud Foster. Linebacker Jack Tyler has been a tackling machine for the Hokies, with 25 stops in two games. Virginia Tech will need its entire front seven to be active, however. It didn’t seem like that was the case against Austin Peay.
The Hokies’ special teams were better against Austin Peay. Jarrett broke off a long punt return, looking much more comfortable catching the ball back there than Roberts, and the kicking game didn’t have any gaffes. Punter A.J. Hughes averaged 44 yards on five punts. Virginia Tech would probably take those numbers for the whole season if it could. Tony Gregory blocked a punt, although fans are still waiting for Tech to do that against a non-FCS team. Kicker Cody Journell is 2-for-3 so far, with one 41-yarder made in the clutch. But remember, the wind is weird in one end of Heinz Field. That might be something to watch.
Pitt kicker Kevin Harper owns the Heinz Field record — college and pro — with the 52-yard field goal he made last year, so he obviously knows how to kick in the stadium. He’s 2-for-2 on field goals so far this season. Punter Matt Yoklic , meanwhile, has averaged 44.8 yards on nine punts, which puts him 19th nationally and second in the Big East. Pitts is leading the Big East with a 29.5 kick return average, so he’ll be one to watch.
Let’s not overthink this. Experience counts. And it’s hard not to notice a major difference there in the coaching staffs. Frank Beamer has 253 career wins, which is 253 more than Chryst, who is in his first head coaching job. Pitt’s Joe Rudolph, a former Wisconsin tight ends coach, is in his first year as a coordinator, although Chryst obviously still has a big role in the play-calling. Still, given Foster’s experience and resume, you’d figure he’d have an edge. Panthers defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable also came from Wisconsin, but he was previously at Central Florida, where his final year the Knights were eighth nationally in scoring defense. Mike O’Cain and Bryan Stinespring are both back in the booth after Stinespring spent last year on the sidelines. O’Cain still calls the plays, while Stinespring thinks he can better judge the running game from up high. They’re already coming under fire for some of Tech’s play-calls this year, though.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
The edges suggest a blowout, but I don’t see that happening. I think Virginia Tech wins, but until I see the Hokies’ offense put together a full game in which they run the ball with authority and pass the ball consistently, I can’t pick them to score too many points. Fortunately for them, I think that will be enough against Pittsburgh, which has been among the worst teams from a BCS conference this season. The Panthers have issues in pass protection on offense and in the pass rush on defense. That’s a bad combination. It’s been nearly a decade since the teams last played, and weird things happened near the end of that run. Some bad or mediocre Pittsburgh teams upset a few pretty highly-ranked Virginia Tech squads back then, so there’s always that thought. Plus, the Panthers will be desperate for a win. But Pitt looked lost the first two weeks. Couple that with the fact that the Hokies play pretty well on the road, and Ill pick Virginia Tech in a comfortable win, just one that’s not a blowout.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Pittsburgh 10.