Also, cornerback Antone Exum is listed as out on the team’s injury report.
Pittsburgh at No. 24 Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg (65,632)
- When: 12:01 p.m., Saturday
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Pittsburgh (3-1, 2-1 ACC), Virginia Tech (5-1, 2-0 ACC)
- Series: Hokies lead 7-5
- Last meeting: Panthers won 35-17 in Pittsburgh last year
- Line: Virginia Tech by 9
When Virginia Tech passes
The passing game has surprisingly turned itself into the most effective part of the Hokies’ offense. Quarterback Logan Thomas has been remarkably accurate the last two games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, completing 38 of 53 passes (71.7 percent) for 514 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, probably his best two-game stretch since 2011. The receivers have grown into their roles. D.J. Coles (11 catches, 5 TDs) is a red zone target. Demitri Knowles (45-yard TD catch last week ) is a deep threat. Willie Byrn has done a good job of being a reliable target, especially on third downs. So has Josh Stanford, who made a couple big third-down catches last week. Considering how often Thomas has thrown the ball, the nine sacks the Hokies have allowed this year aren’t terrible, although it’s still not perfect protection.
Pitt returns cornerbacks K’Wuan Williams and Lafayette Pitts and safety Jason Hendricks, whose name might be familiar from the two interceptions of Thomas he had last year. But the group has been hit and miss this year. The Panthers are allowing 219 passing yards a game (52nd nationally). Duke spread things out and threw for 319 yards. A week later, Virginia threw for 123, which might be attributable to the Cavaliers’ offensive mess. Pitt has four interceptions this year — all against Duke in a 58-55 win. It has also allowed eight pass touchdowns. The pass rush isn’t great outside of one exceptional player, tackle Aaron Donald, who has nine tackles for a loss and six sacks in four games, numbers that put him third and second in the ACC, respectively. (Looking for a dark horse ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate? This is probably it.) But if Thomas continues to play like he has, the Hokies should be able to move the ball through the air.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
It’s been a struggle all year, something I wrote about in today’s paper. The ugly stats from that: the Hokies are averaging 124.5 yards per game on the ground, only the second time in Frank Beamer‘s 27 years that figure has dipped below 125. They’re averaging 3.47 yards per carry, the second lowest average during the team’s 20-year bowl streak. There are myriad reasons for the struggles. The o-line continues to be beat up. Although he hasn’t appeared on the injury report, I think RG Andrew Miller‘s ankle still bothers him a little. And C David Wang‘s shoulder has been an issue lately. The running backs need to be better too. Trey Edmunds missed a few holes last week that would have gone for good gains. As it was, he and J.C. Coleman ran for 53 yards on 22 carries, not the greatest efficiency. Tech ran for 48 yards as a team, the third time they’ve failed to reach 60 yards this year.
Donald is a wrecking ball against the run too, something that should concern the Hokies with the way East Carolina nose tackle Terry Williams gave the Hokies fits (although this is a 4-3 defense, not a 3-4). I’d expect Donald to get plenty of double teams Saturday. Pitt gets a boost from the return of senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon (19 tackles) from a rib injury. But the Panthers’ rushing defense, like their passing defense, has been hit or miss this year. New Mexico ran for 213 on them, although the Lobos are running an option offense this year. Duke, never known as a running team, followed up with 213 on the ground, before Pitt clamped down to hold Virginia to only 65 rushing yards on 33 carries. It’s hard to figure out which Panthers rushing defense will show up. It would probably behoove the Hokies to get the ground game going. Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is 5-0 when his team has held an opponent to less than 100 yards rushing. Pitt has been mediocre against the run, allowing 161.8 yards per game. But mediocre has done the trick against the Hokies this year when it comes to the ground game.
When Pittsburgh passes
The Panthers have the best wide receiving duo — at least statistically — in the league. Senior Devin Street (21 catches, 445 yards, 3 TD) is second in the ACC in receiving yards, while freshman Tyler Boyd (23 catches, 425 yards, 4 TD) is third, so the Hokies’ defensive backs will have their work cut out for them. Well-traveled quarterback Tom Savage, who unbelievably started 11 games as a true freshman for Rutgers way back in 2009, has found them often. Savage is averaging 263.0 yards per game, completing 58.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns. He’s also been picked six times. Pitt hasn’t done the greatest job of protecting him. The Panthers have allowed 13 stacks this year, seven of which came to Virginia two week ago. Lots of that was due to Pitt’s inability to run the ball, leading to plenty of second- and third-and-long situations, which is when the pass rush can get cranked up.
That’ll be the goal for the Hokies this week — limit the run so Pitt has to throw in obvious passing situations. Because that’s when the Hokies really seem to thrive. They’re tied for second nationally with 19 sacks, getting them from pretty much every spot along the defensive front. Every starter on the defensive line has at least two sacks. And they’re tops in the country with 13 interceptions, already matching their season total last year. Cornerback Antone Exum won’t play again, so it’ll be on the youngsters Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson to team with Kyle Fuller to match up with Street and Boyd. They’ve done well so far this year, allowing only 161.3 passing yards a game and just six passing touchdowns. Pitt will probably test this group as much as any team the Hokies have faced this year, but they’ve been up to the challenge thus far.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Pittsburgh runs
Ray Graham is gone (graduated) and so is Rushel Shell (transferred), the formidable running back duo that combined for 251 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Hokies last year. But the Pitt mindset hasn’t changed. It would like to pound he run behind a beefy offensive line that averages 6-foot-5, 315 across the front, a group that’s starting to look more and more like the massive offensive lines that Chryst used to have as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Although Isaac Bennett technically starts, freshman James Conner had been the more effective back. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound bruiser has 353 yards and four touchdowns in four games, with Bennett adding another 179 and two scores as well. Pitt doesn’t appear to do anything fancy here. It will just line up and mash. The stats haven’t been great (Pitt’s 140.3 rushing yards a game is 88th nationally), but opponents have to match the Panthers’ physicality.
It will create an interesting dilemma for defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The Hokies have used nickel personnel the last couple weeks, putting five defensive backs on the field to cope with the spread offenses they faced. Pitt is the first pro-style team the Hokies have gone up against since Alabama in the opener. So will whip linebacker Josh Trimble, who has been an afterthought in recent weeks, get more action when Pitt lines up with traditional personnel? Foster said Tech will use its base defense more often, although he said Kendall Fuller is capable of playing the whip linebacker role too. So it remains to be seen how Foster will attack Pitt’s more traditional look. Overall, the Hokies have done a good job of stifling the run. They’re giving up just 102.3 yards per game on the ground, which is 14th nationally. They’ve only allowed three rushing touchdowns this year. This will be a big physical challenge, however. As linebacker Jack Tyler said, it’s a game where you have to put on “your big-boy pads.”
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech continues to have at least one breakdown on special teams every week. Last week, it was a blocked extra point, when a UNC defender came through untouched. The Hokies’ return game continues to be stuck in neutral, both on kicks (116th nationally) and punts (92nd). It remains to be seen if kicker Cody Journell‘s field goal struggles are over. He didn’t attempt one against the Tar Heels. Punter A.J. Hughes has been a bright spot. His 44.6-yard average is fourth in the ACC (and 22nd nationally). Still, the Hokies have been pretty blah on special teams lately.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Pitt has been just as bad. The Panthers’ return games have done next to nothing. They rank 93rd nationally on kick returns and 121st on punts. Chris Blewitt, which has to be the most unfortunate name ever for a kicker, is only 3-for-5 this year, with both of his misses from inside of 40 yards. Punter Matt Yoklic has been solid, with a 45.5-yard average. The more I look at this, these teams are near carbon copies of each other in terms of special teams production.
Chryst, although obviously being modest, summed up his thoughts during the ACC teleconference this week: ‘Fortunately it’s not coach [Frank] Beamer against Paul Chryst because I don’t like those odds.” Beamer certainly has the experience advantage, although Chryst clearly got the better of him in last year’s matchup. I still think the coaching edge comes down to coordinators. And right now, Foster continues to have his group playing at an elite level, something none of the other coordinators in this game can say. I think Foster was embarrassed by how the Hokies played last year against Pitt, so he’s sure to have put every ounce of effort into game-planning for this one. He has a major edge in experience compared to his Pitt counterpart. Panthers defensive coordinator Matt House is in his first year as the DC after being promoted from secondary coach. This is his first year as a coordinator at any level.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Pitt always seems to have Virginia Tech’s number, and the Panthers have had an extra week to prepare, coming off their bye. And there’s always last year to remember, when Pitt exposed the Hokies for what they really were — a mediocre team with issues on both sides of the ball that would end up finishing 7-6. But I do think some things are different this year. For one, the game’s at Lane Stadium, where Tech plays better. Second, Pitt’s defense isn’t nearly as good as it was last year, when the Panthers were ranked No. 17 nationally. And third, while the receivers can be problematic, I don’t think this is as good of an offense as the team had last year, with Graham, Shel, receiver Mike Shanahan, who torched the VT secondary, and quarterback Tino Sunseri. Pitt’s strength — its receivers — plays right into a strength of the Virginia Tech defense, its secondary, so I don’t know how much the Panthers will be able to exploit that matchup. Pitt has faced two pretty good defenses this year — FSU and UVa — and produced 13 and 14 points, respectively. It’s safe to say the Hokies’ D is in that company too. If the offense does enough, as it has the last few weeks, I think it’ll be enough for Virginia Tech to win comfortably.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Pittsburgh 13