After a week off due to COVID concerns around the program, the Pitt Panthers are back at Heinz Field as they face the Virginia Tech Hokies. It is the final home game of Pitt’s season and a critical one they must win to showcase themselves to potential bowls. In the battle of 4-4 teams, what must the Panthers do in order to slow down a talented Virginia Tech offense?
Key 1: Slow Down the Virginia Tech Rushing Game
No matter what Pitt does against Virginia Tech, slowing down the Hokies running game will be a massive part of their ability to win the game. Amassing 263 yards per game on the ground, Virginia Tech has the nation’s eighth best ground game. They attack defenses from a variety of angles. However, the vital part is how the quarterback is used in this rushing attack. There are lots of zone reads, quarterback draws, and quarterback powers. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a massive part of their rushing attack. The Hokies stay in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) most of the time and in shotgun. It allows them to spread defenses out and create advantageous boxes to run these quarterback runs against.
However, make no mistake, the running backs are dangerous, too. Khalil Herbert is the leader of the backfield and continues to put up impressive numbers after emerging a few weeks ago. Herbert is a smaller, shiftier back akin to a guy like Javian Hawkins more so than someone like Cam’Ron Harris. Herbert has been the heartbeat of the offense when available. His quickness and fantastic vision make him a dangerous back for any team to defend. He has home run hitting speed when he can hit the seam. Herbert is rightfully getting NFL buzz and will be picked in April. He has been especially potent on some outside zone schemes this season.
Pitt has its work cut out for them, but they do have an impressive front four where they can adapt to the Hokies attack. Miami has an impressive front four themselves but got scorched by pre-snap motion designed to take away the linebackers and open up lanes for Hooker and Herbert. In the fourth quarter, they tightened down by aggressively flying their defensive line up field. Even more important is that Pitt’s linebackers and safeties have to be in full support mode this game. Miami blew a few big runs thanks to poor angles at the second level and linebackers getting washed out. If guys like Sirvocea Dennis and Brandon Hill can keep strong integrity and scrape through that trash, Pitt will have a much better chance to slow down the Hokies rushing attack.
Key 2: Free Up Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver
Pitt is facing one of the top tackles in the nation in Hokies left tackle Christian Darrisaw. After shutting out Quincy Roche last week, Pitt does not need the same fate to behold Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver when they are matched up against Darrisaw. That means creating havoc up front to move them free, especially in the pass rush. Pitt has a few allies to where they make this workable. One of the most obvious ones is to run a lot of stunts to create traffic and let Weaver and Jones use their skills against guards rather than Darrisaw.
However, an intriguing option is to use Jones or Weaver as stand-up interior pass rushers. That is called a “spinner” position and is only used for certain players like Jadeveon Clowney. However, Jones has the density, explosiveness, and flexibility to work in this role perfectly. Not only is it a great way to free up Jones and Weaver if they are stymied but it can work as a way to just blow up run plays up the middle. Those designed quarterback runs are toast if either Weaver or Jones can win from that off-ball alignment over the center, for example. Attacking the A-Gap might be a catalyst for Pitt to win this game.
Key 3: Create Traffic in the Passing Game
While it would be wonderful for Pitt to get a running game going, that probably will not happen. The Hokies have been a solid run defense all year and it is due to the play of guys like linebacker Rayshard Ashby. They are technically great and disciplined with their run fits under first-year Defensive Coordinator Justin Hamilton. That means attacking them through the air is the most viable way of taking them down.
With talented defensive backs like Divine Deablo and Jermaine Waller, this is no easy task to throw the ball at will on Virginia Tech. However, they have shown a propensity to struggle when passing off assignments or trying to avoid traffic. Miami did a lot of rollouts last week that had natural picks involved to get guys open to the flat and clog the Hokies’ zone. Creating space against Virginia Tech is always the goal. In their 4-2-5 defense, they run a lot of two-high looks. That can leave the middle of the field open up the seam or on the post. It would not surprising to see Pitt take a shot trying to split that cover two look this week, but those short passes that create traffic and separation can set that up. It should be an easy way for Pitt to move the ball and get Kenny Pickett comfortable.