The lull of the college football offseason is in full swing over the next month. I’ll try to fill that void on the blog by taking a look at all of Virginia Tech’s 2013 opponents and (hopefully) getting some insight from a beat writer who covers each team.
The next team up is Pittsburgh, a new ACC member that gave the Hokies a reality check last September.
Who: Pittsburgh Panthers
When: Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Lane Stadium in Blacksburg
Series history: Virginia Tech leads 7-5 (Last meeting: 2012 in Pittsburgh, 35-17 Panthers win)
The coach: Paul Chryst, second season, 6-7 at Pittsburgh
Last year’s record: 6-7 (3-4 Big East, 5th), lost BBVA Compass Bowl to Ole Miss 38-17
How they got there: Chryst brought some stability to a program in desperate need of it in the wake of Dave Wannstedt‘s firing and Todd Graham‘s bolting to Arizona State. Naturally, his first season wasn’t all that consistent. An opening season loss to FCS Youngstown State and a blowout at Cincinnati wasn’t the start he was hoping for, but the Panthers righted the ship with a 35-17 manhandling of Virginia Tech that showed the type of potential this team had. Led by a defense that would end up ranked 17th nationally and the surprisingly strong play of senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who threw 21 touchdowns to three interceptions, the Panthers managed to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. A potential program-defining win against Notre Dame slipped through Pitt’s fingers in South Bend on a missed field goal in overtime. That could have colored the season much differently. But the Panthers beat eventual Big East champ Rutgers 27-6 and South Florida 27-3 to finish the year before running into a buzz saw against Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl. For a program in flux, getting to a bowl was a decent accomplishment and a good way to at least have some momentum as Pitt makes its move to the ACC.
By the numbers
- Rushing offense: 133.08 ypg (92nd nationally, 5th Big East)
- Passing offense: 257.00 ypg (46th, 3rd)
- Total offense: 390.08 ypg (71st, 4th)
- Scoring offense: 26.62 ppg (74th, 4th)
- Rushing defense: 136.38 ypg (31st, 4th)
- Passing defense: 194.15 ypg (20th, 2nd)
- Total defense: 330.54 ypg (17th, 3rd)
- Scoring defense: 21.08 ppg (23rd, 4th)
- Turnover margin: .92 (15th, 1st)
Offensive starters returning/lost: 5/6
Defensive starters returning/lost: 8/3
Biggest loss: RB Rushel Shell. It could have been Sunseri or running back Ray Graham, but they were supposed to be leaving anyway. Shell, a Pittsburgh native who was the Pennsylvania high school career rushing leader, was tabbed as the Panthers’ next great back. But after dealing with some unspecified personal issues, he decided to transfer to UCLA after a freshman year in which he showed flashes of what he could do, finishing with 641 yards. Teams don’t replace backs with his talent very easily.
Team linchpin: DT Aaron Donald. The tackle epitomizes Pitt’s defense and has the production to back that up. Slightly undersized at 6 feet, 275 pounds, he’s still a load to handle. A two-time All-Big East selection, he had a team-high 18.5 tackles for a loss last year, ranking 12th nationally. He also had 64 tackles and 5.5 sacks, a disruptive player on the Panthers’ line that set the tone for a strong defense.
Watch out for: S Jason Hendricks. He led the team with 90 tackles last season and also was a ball-hawk, picking off six passes, tied for the fifth most nationally (he had two of Logan Thomas last year that proved costly in the Hokies’ loss). A quarterback on the defense, he fits in with Pittsburgh’s hard-nosed mentality on the defensive side, able to dish out big hits when needed. He missed the spring with a toe injury but will be ready for the season.
The 2013 schedule
- Sept. 2: vs. Florida State
- Sept. 14: vs. New Mexico
- Sept. 21: at Duke
- Sept. 28: vs. Virginia
- Oct. 12: at Virginia Tech
- Oct. 19: vs. Old Dominion
- Oct. 26: at Navy
- Nov. 2: at Georgia Tech
- Nov. 9: vs. Notre Dame
- Nov. 16: vs. North Carolina
- Nov. 23: at Syracuse
- Nov. 29: vs. Miami
The buzz: There’s plenty of positive thoughts with this team for the first time in a couple years, mostly because the coach didn’t leave. That was the fear with Panthers fans when the Wisconsin job previously came open last offseason. Chryst, a Madison, Wis., native and former Badgers offensive coordinator, figured to be the perfect candidate. But he stayed and should bring consistency to a program in desperate need of it. The Panthers lost enough offensive stars that expectations aren’t too high as they enter their first season in the ACC, but with a strong, physical defense that seems to fit Pittsburgh’s personality and Chryst pulling the strings on offense, it could well be a dangerous team. The ACC welcomes Pitt with a Labor Day night matchup against Florida State. The Panthers also get Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami in Heinz Field — how about that for a home slate? — where, outside of the Youngstown State loss, they played fairly well last year.
Why they should be excited: While most of the teams covered in these previews so far lean on their offensive exploits (ECU, Marshall, GT, UNC), the Panthers are built more in the mold of Virginia Tech, with a defense that when all was said and done last year was about the Hokies’ equal. Donald and Hendricks are the headliners, but the Pitt D returns eight starters — three on the line, two at linebacker and three in the secondary. The strength is probably on the back end, with cornerbacks K’Waun Williams (four interceptions) and Lafayette Pitts (nine PBUs) both back as starters. Pitt gave up less than 200 passing yards a game, ranking 20th nationally, a pretty good number even in an offensively-challenged league like the Big East. Offensively, it looks like former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage, a fifth-year senior, will get first crack at replacing Sunseri. He threw for 2,211 yards with 14 touchdowns as a freshman with the Scarlet Knights way back in 2009 but hasn’t done much since. Devin Street, who caught 73 passes for 875 yards, gives him a big, 6-foot-4 target. Pitt’s shuffled the offensive line around, but if there’s one thing Chryst knows how to do, it’s putting linemen in successful spots (see his time at Wisconsin for evidence of that).
Why they should worry: On paper, that doesn’t seem to be a very explosive offense. With Sunseri, Graham, Shell, Street and Mike Shanahan, that was a group with a lot of potential last year. Now, four of those guys are gone, in addition to a couple of offensive linemen. That’s quite a bit of overhaul, especially when you’re handing the reins to a quarterback who hasn’t played any significant downs in three and a half years. Despite his faults, Sunseri still threw for 3,288 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. That’s going to be tough production to replace. Losing Shell is a major blow to an offense that seemed to be built for him to succeed. Replacement Isaac Bennett only has 87 career carries for 378 yards. With the shuffling on the offensive line, a couple of true freshmen might have to start. If there was a concern about the defense last year, it’s that teams occasionally ran on the Panthers. Cincinnati finished with 259 rushing yards, Notre Dame 231 and Ole Miss 224.
The more you know: Pitt has played in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., at the end of the last three seasons. The Panthers are 1-2 in those games. But fear not, Pitt fans, the ACC does not have a tie-in to that game.