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Chapter 6: Pitt’s Task of Bringing VT’s Grant Wells Down in the Backfield



Sunday tends to serve as Pitt’s chance to unwind physically, but mentally, it’s a chance to dissect what either went right or wrong the previous day and begin to ensure the mistakes made won’t arise in the coming week’s matchup.

Pat Narduzzi said that Pitt closed the chapter on Georgia Tech Sunday, but it’s not a chapter in the Book of 2022 that will be easily forgotten, nor should it. Pitt suffered a stunning loss to a 1-3 team, a team that was a three-touchdown underdog at home.

Virginia Tech is marginally better at 2-3, marginally better in the betting spread as just a two-touchdown underdog and also traveling to Pittsburgh this week. Narduzzi is focused on Virginia Tech and how the test against a first-year head coach in Brent Pry is a good test.

“We closed a chapter last night,” Narduzzi said at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Monday. “We’re moving on. I think we’ve got a team that’s getting better every week: Virginia Tech. Coach Pry coming to town, old Penn State guy. You’ll see some of that flavor defensively. You’ll see some Penn State offensive stuff as well. Really both sides of the ball.”

Virginia Tech isn’t a very good team either. After losing to Old Dominion to begin the season, knocking off Boston College and Wofford to rise back above .500, VT has lost to West Virginia and North Carolina by a combined score of 74-20 over the last two weeks.

Pry had had his work cut out in renovating a team that stagnated under Justin Fuente, who himself struggled to follow up the legendary Frank Beamer, and he’s working with a roster that hasn’t been very good offensively — and struggled defensively over the last two weeks.

Grant Wells, a Marshall transfer who won the starting job over the spring, has been a quarterback who likes to get the ball out quickly. He was lauded as having a strong arm when he arrived from Marshall, but he’s operated most effectively on the short to intermediate throws that leave his hand before pressure hits home.

With 983 yards and five touchdowns (to six interceptions) on 95-of-167 passing attempts (61% completion), it hasn’t been a banner year for Wells, but he’s a player who can use his arm and legs.

And while the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Wells isn’t a runner in the same vein as Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims, he’s a capable runner who’s racked up 123 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries (before sacks) — eight of which came as undesigned scrambles.

“Grant Wells is doing a good job of knowing where to go with the ball,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a seasoned quarterback from Marshall. Obviously, a transfer in there. He can make all the throws. He can run. He does a lot of scrambling. We’ve got to be able to get him in the pocket when we have opportunities.

“They run a lot of draws with him as well. He’s going to be a ball carrier, a lot like we saw this past weekend. Next weekend will be a good challenge for our guys. Following up with another similar offense.”

Virginia Tech’s offense, which hasn’t been very good in the air (209.2 pass yards per game, 13th in ACC) or on the ground (109.4 yards per game, 13th in the ACC), has been able to scheme Wells away from sacks. Wells is a mobile quarterback, yes, but Charlie Partridge sees a way to force him to either make poor decisions with the football or take sacks.

“We’ve gotta get to him quick,” Partridge said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He does a great job getting rid of the ball, you can tell they put a premium on him not taking a sack, he’s gonna get rid of it quick. We’ve gotta do some things within the structure of the back end where he doesn’t know what the coverage is so he just clutches onto it for that extra fraction of a second.”

Virginia Tech’s offensive line hasn’t quite paved the way for a running back duo that features Keshawn King and Jalen Holston, but it has protected Wells in the pocket. The VT unit, which has used the same five players for a large majority of the season, has allowed just seven sacks this season — good for third-best in the ACC.

It’s a test that Pitt’s defense, which climbed into the pole position in sacks this season in the ACC with 16, is looking forward to testing. Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis lead the way with three each, but players like Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan are looking to inflate their own totals.

It’s a VT offense that Narduzzi feels like has operated the same way the past few seasons, even with a new staff in place that has Tyler Bowen as the offensive coordinator and former Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph as the offensive line coach/run game coordinator.

Narduzzi said it’s an offensive scheme that’s not unfamiliar from the offenses ran at Penn State while Pry was there as James Franklin’s defensive coordinator. And as a long-time defensive coordinator, at Penn State, Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern and Louisana Lafayette, he’s heavily involved with the defense — still calling plays.

Chris Marve is Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator, but Pry still runs the unit, which ranks third in total yards against (310.2 yards) fourth in pass defense (198.8 yards) and fifth in rush defense (100.8 yards).

“They’re playing really good defense,” Narduzzi said. “He’s got an old Penn Stater that’s running his offense. You see what he’d like to do, what his vision of an offense and a defense is on a football team.”

It’s a Virginia Tech that is still searching for an identity under a new head coach and searching for a way to quell a two-game losing skid, and Pitt’s defense will be hyper focused on stopping Wells from impacting the game the way Sims did the week prior.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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