THE MATCHUP: Pitt (3-2) vs. Georgia Tech (3-2)
WHEN: 12:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ACC Network
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 The Fan & The Pitt IMG Sports Network
For the fourth week in a row, another game was decided in the final moments for the Pittsburgh Panthers. Jester Weah and Avonte Maddox secured a victory over the Marshall Thundering Herd in the final 1:04 of last week’s nail biter. With all of these suspenseful endings, Panther fans may wonder how many more they can endure before it takes a toll on their emotional health.
Bad news, folks: the Panthers face another tough team this week.
Pitt will face its second ACC foe of the season this Saturday in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech, led by 9th year head coach Paul Johnson, entered 2016 looking to rebound from a disappointing 3-9 season. Through five weeks, the 3-2 Yellow Jackets have already tied their win total from last year. GT defeated Boston College in Dublin, Ireland on opening weekend. They then followed that victory with a pair of home wins over Mercer and Vanderbilt. However, the Yellow Jackets have dropped their last 2 games, both at home, to Clemson and Miami; a pair of teams currently ranked in the AP top 10. Georgia Tech will look to end their two game skid at Heinz Field Saturday and return to the form that earned them the ACC-Coastal division crown in 2014.
When previewing the Georgia Tech offense, one must begin with their offensive scheme. Paul Johnson runs a triple-option spread offense that only a few teams in the entire country feature. Their system is predicated on the running ability of their quarterback, A- backs (the running back that lines up out wide), and B-backs (the running back that lines up behind the quarterback). Currently, the Yellow Jackets rank 28th in the country with 226.8 rushing yards-per-game. Talented true freshman B-back Dedrick Mills – a player who received offers from schools like Alabama, Florida, and Florida State – leads GT in rushing with 67 attempts for 300 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Jackets’ 2nd leader in attempts, senior quarterback Justin Thomas, has 53 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown. While multiple players have registered over 100 rushing yards on the season, the other runner to watch on Saturday is Clinton Lynch. Lynch may be tied for 5th on the team in terms of carries (15), but he ranks 2nd on the team in rushing yards with 190. The sophomore A-back also has 5 receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown, with a long reception of 77 yards, on top of his explosive 12.7 yards-per-carry.
No matter who carries the ball on a given play, he will follow the blocking of an experienced offensive line led by senior center, Freddie Burden. Burden, a 6-4 299-pounder on the Rimington Award watch list, was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week in week 3 after taking 8 defenders to the ground against Vanderbilt.
Pitt will rely upon its 4th ranked rush defense Saturday if they are to limit Georgia Tech’s ground game. At Tuesday’s press conference, Pat Narduzzi mentioned that his team not only prefers to face run oriented teams, but they anticipate the challenge Georgia Tech’s triple-option presents as well.
“Our guys would rather you run the ball. You can probably see that. We like to defend the run. Obviously, the option gives you a whole different perspective on defending the run. Really we’d like to just line up the “I” formation and run the power. That’s how football used to be. Now it’s the spread and tricky football. But this will be fun. I think our guys are looking forward to it. I was here until really late last night watching tape. I enjoy trying to figure this out.”
Limiting Georgia Tech on the ground will not automatically result in a victory, though. The Yellow Jackets managed to defeat Boston College, a team currently ranked 7th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, despite only gaining 119 yards on the ground.
It is no secret why Pat Narduzzi and his players prefer to face the run: Pitt’s defense has struggled against the pass in 2016, ranking 126th nationally in passing yards-per-game. Big plays have plagued the Panther secondary this season, including a recent 83-yard touchdown versus Marshall. After weeks of worrying about how Pitt’s secondary will perform against the pass, though, fans may receive a breather against Georgia Tech. Only two teams in the FBS average fewer passing yards-per-game than the Yellow Jackets’ 108.8. To gain perspective on how few times GT throws the ball, it helps to mention that Pitt – a team that has shied away from passing the ball this season – has attempted 45 more passes than the Yellow Jackets this year. In fact, Pitt has the same amount of completions as Georgia Tech has total attempts (75).
Defensively, Georgia Tech ranks 28th in the country in total defense, allowing 342.4 yards-per-game. They perform better against the run, ranking 31st in the country in yards-per-game. Senior linebacker P.J. Davis, GT’s leading tackler in 2015, leads the team in tackles with 29. Junior safety Corey Griffin sits just behind David with 28 tackles and 1 interception. Also, watch for middle linebacker Brant Mitchell. Mitchell was regarded as one of the top defensive rookies in the ACC last year, as voted on by conference coaches. In 2016, he holds 19 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, and a quarterback hurries.
If the Yellow Jackets possess a major weakness on defense, it would be their pass rush. Before the season, Andrea Adelson of ESPN stressed the importance of Georgia Tech improving upon their 14 total sacks in 2015.
“There are two main questions facing the Georgia Tech defense headed into the season,” wrote Adelson. “Four starters are gone in the secondary, so that is one. But perhaps bigger is trying to find a way to improve its sack production – because that, in turn, will help out a much younger secondary in coverage.”
So far this season, no salient improvements appear on the stat sheet. The Yellow Jackets have only managed to sack the quarterback 5 times in 5 games, placing them in a tie for 115th in the country. Only one player, senior Patrick Gamble, has multiple sacks on the season. The 6’5” 277-pound defensive tackle has reached the quarterback twice, making him the team leader in that department. But while Gamble leads the team in sacks, junior defensive end Antonio Simmons has been their most disruptive defensive lineman. Simmons may only have one sack on the season, but he has recorded 12 tackles, 4 tackles-for-loss, 7 quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. After recording 3 hurries against Miami last week, Simmons will look to repeat against Panther quarterback Nate Peterman, who posted a career-high 280 yards passing against Marshall.
Below is the weekly statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||37.4||31.0||23.6||18.4|
|Points Off Turnovers||41||13||7||24|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1368||564||1275||643|
|Yards Lost Rushing||118||215||141||45|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.2||2.4||4.8||3.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||250.0||69.8||226.8||119.6|
|Average Yards Per Pass||7.7||8.8||7.3||7.2|
|Average Yards Per Catch||12.3||13.9||15.1||11.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||184.6||336.8||108.8||222.8|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.0||6.0||5.4||5.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||434.6||406.6||335.6||342.4|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||14-414||19-352||7-157||4-80|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||7-67||12-130||6-97||7-65|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-33||2-11||3-75||3-10|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||29.6||18.5||22.4||20.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||9.6||10.8||16.2||9.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||11.0||5.5||25.0||3.3|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||5-3||10-7||9-5||3-2|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||28-266||29-253||14-149||31-248|
|Average Per Game||53.2||50.6||29.8||49.6|
|PUNTS – YARDS||27-1131||29-1204||23-919||27-1082|
|Average Yards Per Punt||41.9||41.5||40.0||40.1|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.3||38.5||36.3||35.7|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||33-2083||28-1749||24-1565||19-1170|
|Average Yards Per Kick||63.1||62.5||65.2||61.6|
|Net Yards Per Kick||41.8||36.1||41.0||41.5|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||35:25||24:35||31:41||28:19|
|4th Down Percentage||67%||67%||56%||33%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||19-173||3-30||5-24||9-65|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||23/24||18/18||16/16||12/12|
On the injury front, Georgia Tech has a pair of players listed as questionable for Saturday: starting right tackle Trey Klock, and starting cornerback Step Durham. Other than that, the rest of their contributors should take the field. For Pitt, there are no new injuries to report. Mike Caprara and Zach Challingsworth remain questionable; Dewayne Hendrix, Elijah Zeise, and Dontez Ford will not play. However, one player that will return to the lineup is Jordan Whitehead. Pitt’s star safety missed last week’s game against Marshall for reasons that were, as described by Pat Narduzzi this week, “personal in nature.”
Saturday is homecoming for the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to an already special weekend, the Panther’s will unveil their much anticipated throwback uniforms for the first time this season. For fans that cannot make it to Heinz Field, the matchup will be aired at 12:30pm on the ACC Network, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. As always, PSN’s staff will provide updates and in-game observations via Twitter.
Last year, the Panthers defeated Georgia Tech by 3-points in Atlanta. Pitt, who leads the all-time series 6-4, is favored to win on Saturday by less than a touchdown. Both teams would obviously prefer a 4-2 record over 3-3, and a loss could very likely eliminate one team from ACC Coastal division contention. If Pitt fans are looking for a weekend to give their blood pressures a rest, this may not be it.