Pitt races towards its final conference matchup of the season as they travel to Atlanta to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. With a potential bowl trip on the line, the Panthers are favored over Georgia Tech. Still, the Yellow Jackets are a young, feisty team that seems to be a tough out despite their record. What must Pitt do to overcome Georgia Tech and bring home their sixth win of the season?
Key 1: Slow Down Georgia Tech’s Rushing Attack
Georgia Tech’s rushing attack is a huge part of their offensive success. Between quarterback Jeff Sims and a talented stable of backs that includes Jordan Mason and stud Freshman Jahmyr Gibbs, the Yellow Jackets are stacked on the ground. Gibbs missed last week with an injury, but Mason still nearly went over 100 yards on the day. He will likely be the main weapon that the Panthers will have to worry about on Thursday. Between his vision and hard-nosed running style, Mason is one of the most underrated runners in the ACC. Only injuries have been able to keep him from having an especially spectacular season once again.
If Gibbs does play, the Panthers are facing a dynamic back that has natural hands out of the backfield. He works as that hybrid receiver and running back and has over 700 combined yards this season. The Yellow Jackets will try to work Gibbs on someone like Phil Campbell as a mismatch. They really have not faced anyone quite like Gibbs this year. He is a pretty unique player that can break big plays and be that mismatch weapon. Even still, stopping him on outside zone runs that he does so well is huge.
The option game for Georgia Tech is a problem when defenses overpursue and do not hold the edge. It will require guys like Patrick Jones and Deslin Alexandre to hold a strong edge and cause chaos at the mesh point between Sims and his talented stable of running backs. The good news is the Panthers have done well against option teams this year and have a blueprint to slow it down, even without Rashad Weaver.
Key 2: Flex the Wide Receiver Talent
Georgia Tech has been a horrendous pass defense thus far on the year. With the 114th ranked passing defense in the nation, the Panthers have a big time opportunity to exploit Georgia Tech. Knowing they have Jordan Addison, DJ Turner, and others, the Panthers map to winning this game will be through the air and the arm of Kenny Pickett. With the diversification of the passing scheme in recent weeks to include an empty set and route combinations that cause traffic, expect those to be heavy utilized tonight.
Georgia Tech just does not have the defensive back talent to match up against these Pitt receivers. The receivers are a frustrating, but talented group. Even ancillary players like Shocky Jacques-Louis, Jaylon Barden, Taysir Mack, and Jared Wayne can be mismatches and cause trouble for teams. It is hard to see them not going to the well to try and get all of these guys involved against a team that simply can not match the speed, size, or physicality. As long as they catch the ball, which is no guarantee, the Panthers should be able to get explosive plays and easy gains through the air.
Key 3: Win in the Red Zone
This is the key to putting the Yellow Jackets away early. Georgia Tech had three trips to the red zone against NC State but only came away with six points from those trips. Pitt’s red zone defense has been solid this year and that seems to be a good recipe to continue tonight. The Yellow Jackets will be looking to convert in those situations, but without a true offensive line that can just power through a very good Pitt defensive line, that is a tough call to ask from them. Even the passing game does not have a big weapon to throw it up to on something like a fade. It is easy to see why they have their struggles there, but cracking the code might require trickeration, which the Panthers need to be ready for on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Pitt has to convert on their opportunities in the red zone. That has been much improved lately as the offensive line seems to have found an identity and the Panthers are going to the passing game a bit more in the red zone. However, it has been anything but stable, even in blowout wins. Against Florida State, the Nick Patti sequence comes to mind to illustrate that. The Panthers must convert on their opportunities and get seven, not three on their trips to the red zone. They will move the ball, but Georgia Tech can win if they hang around thanks to missed red zone opportunities.