THE MATCHUP: PITT (5-4) VS VIRGINIA TECH (4-4)
WHEN: 3:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPNU
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
The optimism surrounding Pitt’s season has returned.
The Panthers, sitting atop the ACC’s Coastal division, control their own destiny with three regular season games remaining. And after a rocky start to the season, Pitt will become bowl eligible with one more win.
However, this week’s opponent, the Virginia Tech Hokies, have Coastal division aspirations of their own, and another conference loss would likely eliminate them from contention. For both teams, Saturday’s matchup is a must-win.
Heading into Justin Fuente’s third season as head coach, the Hokies have taken a step backwards after losing quite a few key contributors from last year’s squad. At 4-4, they have already matched their total number of losses in 2017, but the season hasn’t been entirely negative. Instead, their results would be better described as “inconsistent.” The Hokies handled Florida State and William & Mary to begin the season, but after their week-three matchup versus East Carolina was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, they fell by 14 points to Old Dominion. They rebounded well by defeating Duke 31-14, but then were drubbed at home by Notre Dame, 45-23. VT squeaked by North Carolina the following week, only to be blown out by Georgia Tech, 49-28, in their next outing. Then, last week, they were beaten by the Boston College Eagles, 31-21.
The team’s inconsistency doesn’t just fluctuate on a week-to-week basis, either. In the course of one game, VT can field what may seem like two different teams. Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies jumped out to a 21-14 second quarter lead before conceding 35 unanswered points. After the game, Fuente expressed his dissatisfaction with his team’s performance.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team execute at such a high level for three series and then just shut the valve on it execution wise,” said Fuente. “It’s a little bit disappointing.”
With Miami and Virginia rounding out the Hokies’ regular season schedule, VT’s schedule isn’t getting any easier. The question is: Will they suffer their third defeat in a row, or will they pull off an upset and keep this roller coaster of mixed results alive?
Justin Fuente is known as an offensive guru, and despite the team’s .500 record, he still has his men putting forth some solid efforts on that side of the ball. The Hokies’ 431.1 yards-per-game ranks 47th in the FBS, and their 30.8 points-per-game sits at 54th. Averaging 264.3 yards-per-game through the air (40th), their relative strength is passing the ball, which just so happens to be the area in which Pitt’s defense is most vulnerable. Virginia Tech will not be fielding the most productive or talented unit the Panthers have faced in 2018, but they possess the ingredients which have given the Panthers fits time and time again.
Some of the team’s inconsistency, specifically on offense, can be attributed to the loss of last year’s record-setting freshman quarterback, Josh Jackson. Jackson was off to a strong start in his sophomore campaign before suffering a broken fibula against Old Dominion. While a return in 2018 remains possible for Jackson, he is out indefinitely and will not see the field Saturday afternoon.
Playing in Jackson’s place is redshirt-junior Ryan Willis, a 6-foot-4-inch, 223-pound transfer from Kansas. Like Jackson, Willis is a dual-threat quarterback, and he has put forth some impressive performances this season. Earlier this week, Pat Narduzzi noted that the offense is “a little bit different” with Willis running the show, but gave the quarterback an overall positive review.
“I just see a composed quarterback that is throwing the ball probably better, which is really not what we want to see,” said Narduzzi. “We’ve really been good at stopping the run. We have to be better at stopping the pass. They do a great job with their screen game. He (Willis) knows where to go with the football. I’m not saying he knows where to go better than Jackson. He’s just done a nice job. He’s still a young player. Was he a redshirt junior? He hasn’t played a lot, maybe 11 games or so. But he runs the offense. Goes through him. He’s done a nice job.”
Through the air, Willis has completed 121-of-204 passes for 1,539 yards, 13 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. And as the team’s third-leading rusher, he has 57 carries for 217 yards and 3 touchdowns.
At wide receiver, the Hokies had to replace one of the most productive receivers in program history, Cam Philips, entering the season. Stepping up in Philip’s place is redshirt-sophomore Damon Hazelton, a 6-foot-2-inch, 222-pound transfer from Ball State. Hazelton leads the team with 37 receptions for 636 yards and an ACC-best 7 touchdown receptions. Eric Kumah (28 receptions, 357 yards, 3 touchdowns) is the team’s second leading receiver, and slot men like Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy could be in for big games considering the success that position has against Pitt this season.
The Hokies’ top running back is 5-foot-9-inch, 222-pound Steven Peoples. Peoples, formerly an unranked fullback recruit with one listed offer, is stocky, strong, and built like a wrecking ball. He leads VT with 96 carries for 497 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Listed next to Peoples with an “or” at starting running back is Deshawn McClease, last season’s leading rusher. McClease, a former 4-star recruit, is a smaller, quicker compliment to Peoples and should receive his share of touches tomorrow.
VT lost quite a few key players on defense in the offseason, including first-round draft picks Tremaine Edmunds and Terrell Edmunds, 2017 first-team All-ACC cornerback Greg Stroman, and 2017 second-team All-ACC defensive tackle Tim Settle. As a result, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s “Lunchpail Defense” isn’t performing to its sterling standards; they currently rank 90th in total defense and 79th in scoring defense. The Hokies rank 84th in run defense and have allowed a total of 684 yards on the ground the past two weeks alone, meaning that Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison may be in for another big performance.
Anchoring the Hokies’ four-man defensive front is 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound redshirt-senior tackle Rickey Walker, who was named honorable mention All-ACC in 2017. The team’s most productive pass rusher is defensive end Houshun Gaines, a slightly undersized player at 6-feet-3-inches and 235 pounds. Also, expect to see a pair of redshirt-freshmen which Pat Narduzzi recruited heavily at defensive end, TyJuan Garbutt and Zion Debose. Neither player is starting, but both are contributing in rotational roles.
At linebacker, VT starts a trio of sophomores that are all in their first season as a full-time starter: Rayshard Ashby, Dylan Rivers and Khalil Ladler. Ashby, playing in the middle, leads the Hokies in total tackles (62) and tackles-for-loss (7.5). And Ladler, who also lines up in the secondary, is an undersized, 5-foot-11-inch, 192-pound Whip linebacker that can both tackle (49 tackles) and provide pass coverage. It is worth noting, though, that neither Ashby nor Rivers played last week against Boston College (Ashby dressed but did not play, while Rivers sat out due to injury). Their replacements – freshmen Rico Kearney and Dax Hollifield – combined for 28 tackles, though, showing that VT has some capable young backups in the fold.
Rounding out the Hokies’ defense is their secondary, which has only intercepted four passes in 2018. Rover safety Reggie Floyd is the standout of the group this season. His 53 tackles rank second on the team, and he has also contributed 7 tackles-for-loss and 2 interceptions. The only other member of the secondary to register an interception is redshirt-freshman cornerback Caleb Farley, a high school 100-meter dash state champion in North Carolina. Though young and inexperienced, the former 4-star athlete has two interceptions and looks like he may become Tech’s next standout cornerback.
|Points Per Game||27.4||30.4||30.8||28.4|
|Yards Gained Rushing||2296||1791||1565||1658|
|Yards Lost Rushing||219||263||230||236|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.8||4.5||4.3||4.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||230.8||169.8||166.9||177.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||6.0||8.0||264.3||243.8|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.8||6.0||6.0||5.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||367.7||415.2||431.1||421.5|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||19-492||17-345||25-569||3-67|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||12-103||17-128||21-121||9-84|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||7-123||5-67||5-9||5-21|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||25.9||20.3||22.8||22.3|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||8.6||7.5||5.8||9.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||17.6||13.4||1.8||4.2|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||11-6||19-7||15-4||11-7|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||62-606||51-406||49-443||38-226|
|Average Per Game||67.3||45.1||55.4||28.3|
|PUNTS – YARDS||41-1622||34-1444||43-1847||38-1548|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||35.5||38.3||40.1||37.6|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||31:56||28:04||29:36||30:24|
|4th Down Percentage||45%||43%||50%||43%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||21-163||19-140||19-118||15-105|
Winners of the last two meetings, Virginia Tech leads the all-time series between the two teams, 10-7. However, as 3-point favorites, Pitt is favored to end their skid against the Hokies.
Tomorrow’s game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m., will be aired on ESPNU 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.