THE MATCHUP: PITT (1-2) VS GEORGIA TECH (1-1)
WHEN: 12:20 P.M. EST
WHERE: BOBBY DODD STADIUM, ATLANTA, GA
HOW TO WATCH: WTAE; ACC NETWORK
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
“Nothing that’s happened in the first three weeks really matters.”
Those were the words of Pat Narduzzi during his Monday press conference, and while some may argue that the results from the first three weeks do raise cause for concern, his assertion holds truth and value. For the first time in the Narduzzi era, Pitt will take to the field with a losing record overall, but their conference record remains an unsullied 0-0. On Saturday, the Panthers have the opportunity to put their underwhelming start to the season in the past, and jumpstart the ACC portion of their schedule, when they visit the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech enters Saturday with a 1-1 record after Hurricane Irma forced a cancellation of their week-three matchup against Central Florida. The Jackets’ began 2017 with a 42-41 double-overtime loss to the Tennessee Volunteers, but rebounded by winning at Jacksonville State in week-two. Playing on just five days rest, Georgia Tech took a mere 10-7 lead into halftime against Jacksonville State of the FCS before pulling away in the second half for a 37-10 victory.
The GT offense operates under head coach Paul Johnson’s run-heavy, triple-option spread system. Although playing one less game than most teams, the Yellow Jackets’ 372.5 rushing yards-per-game lead the FBS. They have struggled with ball security, though, fumbling six times and losing two to the opposition.
Last season, Pitt defeated the Yellow Jackets thanks to outstanding defensive efforts from experienced players like Shakir Soto and Ejuan Price. However, many of the key contributors in last season’s victory have graduated, leaving the Panthers’ defense with a bevy of players who will be facing the unique triple-option for the first time.
At quarterback, Justin Thomas graduated following three seasons as the Yellow Jackets’ starter, leaving first-year starter TaQuon Marshall behind center. A former A-Back, Marshall set GT single-game records for rushing yards by a quarterback (249), carries (44) and rushing touchdowns (5) in his first start against Tennessee. The junior’s rushing production dropped drastically against JSU, though, when he gained just 25 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
As is the case with most quarterbacks under Paul Johnson, Marshall has very few passing attempts on the season. However, when he does throw, Marshall has been the most statistically efficient passer in the FBS. Through four games, Marshall has completed 10-of-16 passes for 232 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Yellow Jackets start three running backs: two A-backs and a B-back. The starting A-backs, who line up out wide, are Qua Searcy and Nathan Cottrell. Clinton Lynch, wearing number 22, may be the A-back to watch, though. Lynch averaged 17.1 yards-per-touch in 2016 and is a threat to break away every time he touches the ball. The junior scored on a 45-yard run in last season’s matchup, so Pat Narduzzi should be well aware of his ability. Lynch has yet to burst through for a lengthy rush (he missed the opener due to injury), but his 33-yard reception in week-two suggests that the big-play potential remains.
At B-back, the running back who lines up behind the quarterback, is sophomore KirVonte Benson. 2016 breakout freshman Dedrick Mills was dismissed before the season, but Benson has softened the loss. A compact, 5-foot-9-inch, 211-pound runner, Benson won a 6A 100-meter dash Georgia state championship in high school, possessing speed to compliment his bulk. He currently sits second on the team in rushing with 37 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown.
The other B-back to monitor is true freshman Jerry Howard, who had his redshirt burned against JSU. Howard immediately rewarded his coach’s decision with a 65-yard touchdown run in his debut.
Regardless of which of the aforementioned players carries the ball, he will be running behind an offensive line that has some experience, but lacks size. Georgia Tech could start as many as four linemen Saturday that are listed as 291 pounds-and-under.
As previously noted, the Yellow Jackets do not throw the ball often, but when they do, 6-foot-3-inch, 212-pound Ricky Jeune is TaQuon Marshall’s top target. Jeune, a senior wide receiver, led the Jackets in receptions last season and is on pace to do so again. He is the only Georgia Tech receiver with noteworthy statistics, registering 4 receptions for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Defensively, Georgia Tech alternates between a 4-3 base defense and a 4-2-5 base defense, listing twelve starters on their depth chart to reflect such flexibility. When operating out of the 4-2-5, the Yellow Jackets substitute a nickel back in favor of a third linebacker. Statistically, their 279 yards allowed per game rank 23rd in the FBS, with an 18th-ranked pass defense serving as their relative strength (147 yards passing yards allowed per game). The GT defense’s biggest flaw last season was their inability to sack the quarterback; they totaled just 18 sacks all year. However, the Yellow Jackets accumulated 5 sacks against Jacksonville State last week and will look to build upon that success against a Panther offensive line that is tied for 117th in the FBS in sacks allowed per game (3.33).
On the defensive line, defensive end KeShun Freeman returns as the only full-time starter from 2016. After earning USA Today Freshman All-American honors in 2014, Freeman’s production has leveled out a bit. The other starting defensive end, Anree Saint-Amour, is out-producing Freeman with 3 total tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss and 2 sacks. Also of note, starting defensive tackle Desmond Branch stands at 6-feet-3-inches and 270-pounds, leaving GT with a slightly undersized presence in the middle.
Returning middle linebacker Brant Mitchell, who leads the team with 15 total tackles, heads the Jackets’ linebacking corps. Victor Alexander, a first-year starter, and Terrell Lewis, a 3-game starter last season, line up on his sides. Pitt may also see true freshman T.D. Roof after he registered 3 total tackles with 2 sacks against Jacksonville State.
At cornerback, starters Lance Austin and Step Durham return on the outside, while Lance’s twin brother, Lawrence Austin, returns at nickel back. Lawrence started 10 games at nickel last season and has been highly productive this year with 12 total tackles, 1 interception, 2 break-ups and 3 passes-defended. All three corners are seniors, matching age with experience.
Behind the corners, both starting safeties return. Corey Griffin, GT’s leader in tackles last season, starts at strong safety, while A.J. Gray starts at free safety. Each player holds 6 total tackles on the year.
|Points Per Game||21.0||37.7||39.0||26.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||566||438||783||307|
|Yards Lost Rushing||100||79||38||43|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.5||4.2||5.5||4.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||155.3||119.7||372.5||132.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||205.0||349.0||116.0||147.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||4.7||7.7||6.4||5.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||360.3||468.7||488.5||279.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||10-189||6-124||4-39||6-126|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||4-66||3-31||5-12||0-0|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-2||4-60||2-21||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||18.9||20.7||9.8||21.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||16.5||10.3||2.4||0.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||0.7||15.0||10.5||0.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||2-2||2-1||6-2||3-1|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||12-105||10-90||12-107||7-73|
|Average Per Game||35.0||30.0||53.5||36.5|
|PUNTS – YARDS||13-595||11-430||6-258||11-462|
|Average Yards Per Punt||45.8||39.1||43.0||42.0|
|Net Yards Per Punt||41.9||33.1||43.0||40.9|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||34:48||25:12||36:30||23:30|
|4th Down Percentage||77.8%||66.7%||0%||0%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||3-21||10-89||5-33||2-11|
Georgia Tech is fairly healthy heading into Saturday. Defensive end Kyle Cerge-Henderson is probable, while linebacker David Curry and offensive lineman Andrew Marshall are out.
For the Panthers, fullback George Aston has been upgraded to probable and may make his debut this week. Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Anthony McKee, Jr. and Phillipie Motley are out, while Tre Tipton and Quintin Wirginis were previously lost for the season.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 7-4, winning the previous two matchups by late-game field goals. The twelfth meeting between the two teams kicks off at 12:20 Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia. The game will be aired on WTAE and the ACC Network, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.