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Can Pitt Win Special Teams Battle?

For years, maybe above anything else, Virginia Tech has been known for strong special teams play. They called it “Beamer Ball” thanks to the contributions of long-time head coach Frank Beamer, and although Beamer retired at the end of the 2015 season and the Hokies are now led by Justin Fuente, the “Beamer Ball” legacy lives on in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Already this season, the Hokies have blocked two field goals, returned a punt for a touchdown, held opposing punt returners to a 4.3-yard average and generally caused havoc in all phases. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is expecting more of the same Thursday night at Heinz Field.

“They play fast in everything they do,” Narduzzi said on his ACC conference call Wednedsay. “I don’t think they’re real complex as far as what they do, and I think Coach Beamer did a great job of instilling special teams. Everybody thinks of what they did with their all blocked punts and field goals, and they’ve continued to block field goals and punts to be honest with you.

“But I think that’s kind of the makeup. I think when the team they’ve got there, when they came to Virginia Tech, that was part of the legacy, I guess, of Virginia Tech. So you still see them playing very fast on special teams. They’re putting the best players out there, and they give great effort, so I think that’s what you see out of all the special teams units.”

The chief weapon for the Hokies in the return game is Greg Stroman. He’s averaging 10.2 yards per punt return and has a touchdown there while averaging 22.8 yards per kickoff return. He’s the team’s leader in all-purpose yards despite being a starting cornerback and not playing a snap of offense this season.

Strong-legged punter Michael Ludwig is averaging over 40 net yards per kick, with his longest of the season going 61. He’s also forced 14 fair catches and had 15 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line, a sign of quality hang-time as well as distance.

In the kickoff department, don’t expect a big day from Quadree Henderson, as Joey Slye has sent 40 of his 48 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

“The first thing would be we’d love to get touchbacks, and we’d love for Joey Slye, our kicker, to continue to kick the ball through the end zone, try to take the ball out of his hands,” Fuente said on how they plan to limit Henderson. “But in the event that those things don’t happen, you’ve got to trust your fundamentals and train our kids about where to avoid and what keys to read and hope like heck you can get the guy on the ground because he has been electric back there returning kicks.”

The Panthers had an extra three days to prepare for Virginia Tech with their bye last week and Narduzzi used that time to get in some extra work on special teams.

“No doubt about it, with extra practices — usually on Thursday we work on every special team, and then on a normal Tuesday, we work two phases and field goal, and then on Wednesday we work two phases, as well, with no field goal,” he said. “With those extra days we were able to have extra practices on those phases.”

FIRST OUT OF THE GATE

Virginia Tech has been dynamite in the first quarter, outscoring opponents 61-16 in the first 15 minutes. That 16 points includes just one first-quarter touchdown. While Virginia Tech is mostly known for having a stingy defense, the quick-start offense helps play into that strength. Playing from behind can make teams one-dimensional and more susceptible to the blitzing attack.

But Narduzzi downplayed any extra significance on getting out to a quick start.

“Yeah, you know, I don’t know if we’ve got to get off to a fast start [or] a strong finish,” he said. “I think a 60-minute game, I’m not sure if the fast start or the great finish matters. I think the only thing that really matters is that W.”

Pitt’s defense had been doing well in the opening frame, as well, having gone three straight games while allowing just one field goal, but Virginia lit them up for 21 points in the opening frame 10 days ago.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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