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:
|Points Per Game||38.4||31.4||35.9||17.9|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1827||944||1591||993|
|Yards Lost Rushing||153||268||208||268|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.1||3.1||4.1||2.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||239.1||96.6||197.6||103.6|
|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|
|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|
|4th Down Percentage||75%||67%||43%||31%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||25-220||5-33||20-127||11-65|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||33/34||26/26||29/30||14/16|
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.