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Game Preview

Weekly Preview: Pitt vs. Virginia Tech

THE MATCHUP: Pitt (5-2) Vs. Virginia Tech (5-2)
WHEN: 7:00 PM EST
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 the fan & The Pitt IMG Sports NETWORK

Pitt begins the second half of its season Thursday night against the 25th ranked Virginia Tech Hokies. Plenty is on the line for both teams in a game that may very well eliminate the loser from ACC Coastal Division contention.

The Hokies enter Heinz Field under the direction of first-year head coach, Justin Fuente. Following the retirement of longtime head coach Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech hired Fuente away from Memphis in the offseason. Per ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, Fuente is off to an impressive start, earning the analyst’s nod for college football’s best first-year head coach at the midway point. Part of his immediate success can be attributed to his newly installed up-tempo offense, which Pat Narduzzi previewed on Monday.

“They’re going to line up with two backs in the backfield most of the time, no tight end, with three wideouts,” Narduzzi said. “But they move them to make at least 11 to 13 different formations out of it. So you really have to adjust to that. They’re doing everything out of two backs in the backfield. You look at the personnel they have, they do a good job of putting the best personnel they have on the field.”

Aiding Fuente in his success is Bud Foster, Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator since 1996. Foster continues to further his reputation for fielding stout defensive units; his “Lunch Pail Defense” ranks 10th in total yards-per-game (302.0 ypg), and is tied for 15th in scoring defense (17.9 ppg).

The Hokies hold five wins on the season, including convincing victories over North Carolina (34-3) and Miami (37-16). Their two losses, which were both played outside of Blacksburg, came against Tennessee and Syracuse.

Tonight’s game is not a typical Thursday night matchup, since neither team enters on short rest. Pitt is coming off of a bye week, while Virginia Tech participated in last week’s Thursday night game. Here are five key matchups to monitor tonight as both teams seek their sixth win:

VT Receivers vs. Pitt’s Secondary: At this point, Pitt’s struggles against the pass have been well documented (see any of Pittsburgh Sports Now’s previous previews). They rank 123rd nationally in pass defense, allowing 298.9 yards-per-game. On Thursday, the Panthers will face arguably the most talented receiver to cross their path this season in 6’2” 195-pound junior Isaiah Ford. Ford, CBS Sports’ third ranked receiver for the 2017 NFL draft, has 36 receptions for 505 yards and 5 touchdowns on the season. In 2015, Ford earned first-team All-ACC honors while becoming the first receiver in Hokie history to register over 1,000 yards in a season. Joining Ford is Bucky Hodges, a 6’7” 245-pound receiver and former 4-star quarterback prospect. Hodges moved from tight end to receiver in the offseason, and has recorded 25 receptions for 323 yards and 5 touchdowns at his new position. Most draft websites still list Hodges as a tight end prospect, with CBS viewing him as the second-ranked tight end in the 2017 NFL draft. If the pair of 2017 NFL prospects aren’t enough, junior receiver Cam Phillips has added 27 receptions for 405 yards and 2 touchdowns to the Hokies’ total.

VT Quarterback vs. Pitt’s D-Line: Of course, the best way to limit a talented receiving corps is to stop the pass at its source. Justin Fuente’s offense is operated by 6’3” 238-pound dual-threat quarterback, Jerod Evans. Through the air, the junior has completed 117 of 186 passes for 1,605 yards, 19 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions. On the ground, Evans is Tech’s second leading rusher with 85 rushes for 417 yards and 3 touchdowns. He possesses the athleticism to escape the pocket and extend the play, or run for a first down when necessary. Pitt’s pass rush, tied for 8th in the FBS with 3.57 sacks-per-game, will try to alleviate the pressure on their defensive backfield through Evans. Their defensive line is led by the nation’s leader in sacks, Ejuan Price. Price left the UVA game with an injury, but remains listed as a starter on this week’s depth chart. Also, look for running back James Conner’s contributions at defensive end. If his first defensive snap of the season was of any indication, Conner can provide pressure when given the opportunity.

Travon McMillian vs. Pitt’s Run Defense: While quarterback Jerod Evans accumulates his fair share of rushing yards, the VT running game is highlighted by sophomore running back Travon McMillian. The 6’0” 205-pound sophomore has rushed for 458 yards and 3 touchdowns on 92 carries. He faces a Pitt defense allowing an average of 96.6 rushing yards-per-game, which ranks 7th in the nation. They have yet to allow a 100-yard rushing performance, and that isn’t thanks to a lack of talented opposition. Names like Saquon Barkley, Elijah Hood, and Taquan Mizzell failed to reach the century mark against the Panthers. McMillian will be the next talented runner, but certainly not the last, to test Pitt’s run defense this season.

VT Pass Rush vs. Pitt’s O-Line: When Nate Peterman drops back to pass, opposing teams have had little success bringing him to the ground; the Panthers allow just .71 sacks-per-game, tied for 7th best in the country. Virginia Tech features a pair of senior defensive linemen, Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron, who have created consistent pressure this season. Ekanem, a 6’3” 260-pound defensive end, has tallied a team-high 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles-for-loss. Baron, a 6’2” 280-pound defensive tackle, adds 4.0 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss to the team’s total. Although Ekanem and starting defensive tackle Nigel Williams sat out against Miami last week, the Hokies still sacked quarterback Brad Kaaya 8 times en route to their victory. Pitt’s offensive line, anchored by Midseason All-American Dorian Johnson, will need to provide Peterman time on passing downs. Forcing passes under pressure can be dangerous against a Hokie defense that has intercepted 9 passes this year, tying them for 20th nationally in that category.

VT Run Defense vs. Pitt’s Rushing Attack: Virginia Tech allows 103.6 rushing yards-per-game, the 10th best average in the FBS, thanks to three players that have registered over 50 tackles in 2016. Junior middle linebacker and New Zealand native, Andrew Motuapuaku, leads the Hokies in tackles with 59. Right behind him is fellow linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. The 6’5” 236-pound sophomore has 54 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss, and 3.5 sacks. Free safety Chuck Clark rounds out the trio with an even 50 tackles. They face a Panther rushing attack averaging 239.1 yards-per-game. James Conner (124 carries, 531 yards, 7 touchdowns), Quadree Henderson (32 carries, 349 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Chawntez Moss (36 carries, 223 yards, 1 touchdown) are the primary ball carriers, although Matt Canada utilizes a variety of athletes in the run game.

Below is this week’s statistical breakdown:

TEAM STATS

PITT VT
  PITT OPPONENTS VT OPPONENTS
POINTS SCORED 269 220 251 125
Points Per Game 38.4 31.4 35.9 17.9
FIRST DOWNS 148 136 155 104
Rushing 75 46 62 38
Passing 61 78 80 56
Penalty 12 12 13 10
RUSHING YARDAGE 1674 676 1383 725
Yards Gained Rushing 1827 944 1591 993
Yards Lost Rushing 153 268 208 268
Rushing Attempts 331 219 337 247
Average Yards Per Rush 5.1 3.1 4.1 2.9
Average Yards Per Game 239.1 96.6 197.6 103.6
Rushing Touchdowns 19 15 10 6
PASSING YARDAGE 1252 2092 1662 1389
Comp-Att-Int 100-161-2 148-246-4 203-125-2 235-111-9
Average Yards Per Pass 7.8 8.5 8.2 5.9
Average Yards Per Catch 12.5 14.1 13.3 12.5
Average Yards Per Game 178.9 298.9 237.4 198.4
Passing Touchdowns 11 12 20 9
TOTAL OFFENSE 2926 2768 3045 2114
Total Plays 492 465 540 482
Average Yards Per Play 5.9 6.0 5.6 4.4
Average Yards Per Game 418.0 395.4 435.0 302.0
KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 22-691 28-597 17-380 8-167
PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 10-113 16-157 24-210 7-30
INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS 4-92 2-11 9-18 2-19
KICK RETURN AVERAGE 31.4 21.3 22.4 20.9
PUNT RETURN AVERAGE 11.3 9.8 8.8 4.3
INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE 23.0 5.5 2.0 9.5
FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST 8-4 10-7 18-12 10-5
PENALTIES – YARDS 38-350 44-366 37-318 58-437
Average Per Game 50.0 52.3 45.4 62.4
PUNTS – YARDS 33-1422 37-1556 37-1493 50-2099
Average Yards Per Punt 43.1 42.1 40.4 42.0
Net Yards Per Punt 37.1 38.5 38.5 36.6
TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME 34:49 25:11 32:32 27:27
3rd-DOWN CONVERSIONS 45/102 34/96 44/107 27/109
3rd-Down Percentage 44% 35% 41% 25%
4th-Down CONVERSIONS 6/8 10/15 3/7 5/16
4th Down Percentage 75% 67% 43% 31%
SACKS BY – YARDS 25-220 5-33 20-127 11-65
TOUCHDOWNS SCORED 35 29 31 16
FIELD GOALS/ATTEMPTS 8-12 6-8 10/14 5/9
RED-ZONE TOUCHDOWNS/ATTEMPTS 24/31 17/22 21/34 7/16
PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED 33/34 26/26 29/30 14/16

INDIVIDUAL STATS

Passing:

COMP ATT YDS TD INT EFFIC
PITT
Peterman, Nate 100 158 1252 11 2 150.3
VT
Evans, Jerod 117 186 1605 19 2 166.9


Rushing:

CAR YDS AVG TD LONG
PITT
Conner, James 124 531 4.3 7 32
Henderson, Quadree 32 349 10.9 3 50
Moss, Chawntez 36 223 6.2 1 41
VT
McMillian, Travon 92 458 5.0 3 69
Evans, Jerod 85 417 4.9 3 55
Williams, Marshawn 39 170 4.4 1 19


Receiving:

REC YDS TD LONG
PITT
Weah, Jester 19 402 4 60
Orndoff, Scott 17 228 2 74
Henderson, Quadree 17 174 1 24
Conner, James 15 197 2 55
VT
Ford, Isaiah 36 505 5 47
Phillips, Cam 27 405 2 55
Hodges, Bucky 25 323 5 35
Rogers, Sam 8 157 3 52


Defense:

SOLO TOTAL TFL FF FR INT SACKS
PITT
Lewis, Ryan 35 42 0.5 0 0 1 0.0
Whitehead, Jordan 31 41 1.5 1 1 1 0.0
Idowu, Oluwaseun 15 35 1.0 1 0 0 0.0
Galambos, Matt 16 32 1.5 0 1 0 0.0
Webb, Terrish 25 30 1.0 0 0 1 0.0
Soto, Shakir 21 27 5.5 0 0 0 1.5
Price, Ejuan 18 26 13.0 3 0 0 9.0
VT
Motuapuaka, Andrew 28 59 3.0 0 1 1 1.0
Edmunds, Tremaine 28 54 11.0 0 1 0 3.5
Clark, Chuck 26 50 1.0 1 0 0 0.0
Edmunds, Terrell 20 37 0.5 0 1 3 0.0
Baron, Woody 17 25 9.5 0 1 0 4.0
Ekanem, Ken 10 19 5.5 0 0 0 4.5

As previously stated, Ekanem (upper extremity injury) and senior defensive tackle Nigel Williams (ankle) missed the matchup against Miami one week ago. However, Fuente stated on Monday that both players will likely play against the Panthers. Other than running back Deshawn McClease and Trent Young, who are both out for the season, the Hokies should field all expected contributors. For the Panthers, their injury report appears as follows: Ejuan Price and Mike Caprara are listed as probable; Terrish Webb is listed as questionable; Bam Bradley, Dontez Ford, and Avonte Maddox are listed as doubtful; Zach Challingsworth, Elijah Zeise, and the other players previously lost for the season are out.

Thursday night’s game begins at 7:00 PM. It will be aired nationally on ESPN, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. As always, PSN’s staff will provide updates and in-game observations via Twitter.

Virginia Tech leads the all-time series 8-7, and is favored to widen that margin tonight. However, they hold an 0 for 4 record at Heinz Field, and have dropped 6 of their last 7 games against Pitt. On Monday, Pat Narduzzi made sure to mention that none of those previous meetings hold any weight this week.

“If we need the past to help with our confidence, then we probably got issues, hey, we got a chance to win because this is what happened in the past. It doesn’t matter. This is a new football team. They’re coming in here, they have never come in here in October, 2016 to play us. So they get a chance to come here and it’s a new show. In my opinion.”

His statement may be more than just opinion. Tonight could end the dreams of a Coastal Division championship for one team, and the results of a game 4 years ago will mean little to those trying to keep the dreams of their current season alive.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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