THE MATCHUP: PITT (4-6) VS VIRGINIA TECH (7-3)
WHEN: 12:20 P.M. EST
WHERE: LANE STADIUM, BLACKSBURG, VA
HOW TO WATCH: ABC (PITTSBURGH); ACC NETWORK
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
Pitt’s already bleak hopes of reaching a bowl game in 2017 faded even further last week when they fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels, 34-31. While a 6-win season remains attainable if Pitt wins out, the final two opponents on their schedule will be tough to defeat.
In the first of their do-or-die games to close out the season, the Panthers travel to Blacksburg, Virginia where they will face the Virginia Tech Hokies.
In their second season under head coach Justin Fuente, the 2016 ACC Coach of the year, Virginia Tech climbed as high as 12th in the polls during a 7-1 run to begin the year. However, after road losses to Miami and Georgia Tech in their last two contests, the Hokies have dropped out of the top-25 for the first time this season. They will now look to rebound against Pitt at Lane Stadium, where they have won five out of seven matchups versus the Panthers.
Although Coach Fuente is an offensive coach, Virginia Tech’s “lunch pail” defense has been the stronger unit this season. At the direction of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies rank 15th in the FBS in total defense, allowing 310.6 yards-per-game. Even more impressively, Tech is conceding just 14.8 points-per-game, placing them at 6th in scoring defense. To earn such high rankings, the Hokies’ defense remains stout throughout the entire game, but it is on 3rd down when it stands out; VT ranks 4th in defensive third down conversion percentage, allowing first downs 25.7% of the time.
Against the run, Virginia Tech concedes 135.7 yards-per-game, while averaging a respectable 7.7 tackles-for-loss (t-11th in FBS). The defensive line is anchored by their massive redshirt-sophomore nose tackle, Tim Settle. At 6-foot-3-inches and 335-pounds, Settle does more than simply clog the middle; he has 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks on the season. Pairing with Walker at defensive tackle is Ricky Walker, the line’s other standout. Walker has 9.0 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks
Aiding in the run defense’s success is Virginia Tech’s linebacking corps, one of the more productive groups of linebackers in college football. 2016 second team All-ACC honoree outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds leads the way statistically with 86 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Behind him is New Zealand native Andrew Motuapuaka, a 2016 third team All-ACC selection at middle linebacker. Motuapuaka has 75 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 1 interception. And rounding out the group is WHIP linebacker Mook Reynolds, who has 65 tackles, 9 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble.
Virginia Tech may defend the run well, but they excel against the pass, allowing 174.9 yards-per-game (14th in FBS). While they average a modest 2.1 sacks-per-game (t-61st in FBS), the secondary compensates for the average pressure by providing above average coverage.
Cornerback Greg Stroman, a 2016 third team All-ACC selection, is next in a long line of accomplished players to emerge in the Hokies’ secondary. Quarterbacks have steered away from Stroman’s side of the field this season, and his 9 tackles reflect the infrequency in which receptions are made in his vicinity. When he is targeted, though, Stroman has registered 12 pass defended and 3 interceptions, with one pick-six. The senior also excels as a punt returner, taking two returns for touchdowns in 2017.
The Hokies’ secondary suffered a significant blow this week when free safety Terrell Edmunds underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, though. Edmunds, brother of the aforementioned Tremaine Edmunds, brought 26 career starts and leadership to the secondary. With Edmunds out, redshirt-freshman Khalil Ladler is expected to receive his first career start.
Offensively, the Hokies entered 2017 needing to replace dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans, record setting receiver Isaiah Ford, and 6-foot-7-inch matchup nightmare Bucky Hodges. They seemed primed for a significant step backwards this year, but have fared well with 412.9 yards and 31.5 points per-game. If the Hokies can match their season average in points scored on Saturday, it will bode well for their chances of winning; since 1996, Virginia Tech is 77-3 at Lane Stadium when scoring 30-or-more points.
At quarterback is redshirt-freshman Josh Jackson, one of the premier freshmen quarterbacks in the nation. A three-star recruit from the state of Michigan, Jackson has already broken Michael Vick’s records for most passing yards and passing touchdowns by a freshman. Unlike a young Vick, though, Jackson’s success is predicated on his arm; he has completed 183 of 297 passes for 2,382 yards, 17 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. However, the 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pounder can run when necessary, registering 90 carries for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns.
At his Monday press conference, Pat Narduzzi noted that the Hokie offense hasn’t been overwhelmingly complex with a rookie under center, but the results have been favorable nonetheless.
“They keep it simple for a young guy with his concepts,” said Narduzzi. “You’re not seeing a ton of different concepts but a lot of simple concepts, screens he’s been very good at, and he’ll throw a good fade. We’ve got to cover the deep ball.”
Jackson doesn’t have the likes of Ford and Hodges at his usage, but he still has options. Wide receiver Cam Phillips has received an increased role with the departure of Isaiah Ford, although this is hardly Phillips’ first season producing at a high level. Phillips owns the VT record for career receptions (225), and with 94 more yards, he will pass Ford as Tech’s all-time leader in career receiving yards. On the year, the senior has 60 receptions for 801 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Along with Phillips, 5-foot-9-inch freshman Sean Savoy also merits attention. Savoy, a versatile option in the slot, has 37 receptions for 447 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air, with 23 carries for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground.
Jackson’s ability to find targets like Phillips and Savoy is crucial for an offense averaging a subpar 3.7 yards-per-rush and 164.7 yards-per-game. With an “or” appearing between Trevon McMillian and Steven Peoples, Virginia Tech’s starting running back on Thursday is unclear. After topping 1,000 yards in 2015, McMillian failed to do so in 2016 and will need to go on a tear if he is to accomplish that feat this season. Ranking as Tech’s leader in rushing, McMillian has 101 carries for 434 yards and 2 touchdowns. Peoples, who missed the games against Miami and Georgia Tech, ranks sixth on the team in rushing and hasn’t been a major contributor this season.
With the last three contests between Pitt and Virginia Tech having been decided by a total of 12 points, field goals may also play a part in what could be another close game. 2016 first-team All-ACC kicker Joey Slye returns, but he is on target to post the lowest field goal percentage of his four-year career as the Hokies’ kicker. Having converted 15-of-22 field goals for a 68.2 conversion rate, Slye has already missed as many field goals as he did in 14 games last season, although his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks 86.4% of the time (t-3rd in FBS).
|Points Per Game||24.9||28.5||31.5||14.8|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1874||1734||1873||1688|
|Yards Lost Rushing||299||227||226||331|
|Average Yards Per Rush||4.1||4.4||3.7||3.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||157.5||150.7||164.7||135.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||210.8||264.5||248.2||174.9|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.4||6.3||5.5||4.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||368.3||415.2||412.9||310.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||28-512||23-591||19-483||13-245|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||16-312||17-218||34-386||6-36|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||8-84||6-61||11-255||6-96|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||18.3||25.7||25.4||18.8|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||19.5||12.8||11.4||6.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||10.5||10.2||23.2||16.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||10-6||9-6||10-4||17-5|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||40-399||47-384||47-438||73-551|
|Average Per Game||39.9||38.4||43.8||55.1|
|PUNTS – YARDS||48-2104||45-1882||51-2168||76-3072|
|Net Yards Per Punt||38.0||34.9||40.6||34.8|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:30||27:30||31:44||28:14|
|4th Down Percentage||63%||50%||42%||44%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||17-122||26-207||21-153||19-119|
Virginia Tech enters Saturday with few players out, but some key contributors in question. Starting left tackle Yosuah Nijman, cornerback Adonis Alexander, running back Steven Peoples, wide receiver Drake Deluliis and wide receiver C.J. Carrol are all listed as “questionable.” Starting free safety Terrell Edmunds, receiver Caleb Farley and safety Divine Deablo are listed as “out.”
For Pitt, Avonte Maddox is considered “probable” once again this week. George Aston, Matt Flanagan and Malik Henderson have been ruled out.
HOW/WHERE TO WATCH
Pitt versus Virginia Tech kicks off at 12:20 on Saturday at Lane Stadium. The game will be aired on ESPN 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.