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Virginia Tech dominated the series with the Pitt Panthers in the old days of the Big East. The Hokies and Panthers first met in 1993, and Tech was victorious in seven of the first eight meetings, with their lone loss coming in 1997. However, Pitt has taken six of the past seven meetings dating back to 2001. They have been especially successful against the Hokies in Heinz Field (opened in 2001), where they are 4-0 against Tech.
But those past games don’t mean a lot. The Hokies have changed coaching staffs, and the thing that’s hurt Tech the most against Pitt the last few years has been fixed. Tech just couldn’t move the football or score points against the Panthers in recent years. Check out these numbers…
2012: 17 points, 324 yards
2013: 19 points, 315 yards
2014: 16 points, 291 yards
2015: 13 points, 100 yards
If you can’t crack 20 points against a team, you’re generally going to lose. The Pitt defense has suffocated the Hokies in the last four meetings. Tech’s offense was beaten soundly at the line of scrimmage in all four of those games.
Things will have to change for the Hokies this year, because this is a huge game. A victory over the Panthers would give Tech the head-to-head tiebreaker over Coastal Division rivals UNC, Miami and Pitt. All the Hokies would need to do is defeat Duke (3-4, 0-3), Georgia Tech (4-3, 1-3) and UVA (2-5, 1-2) and they would represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game on December 3, where their opponent would most likely be Clemson. In short, Thursday night’s game is a de facto Coastal Division championship game from Virginia Tech’s perspective. If the Hokies win it, it’s going to be very difficult to keep them out of Orlando.
It’s also a huge game for Pitt. The Panthers have already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to UNC. They also face Miami and Clemson in back-to-back games after their date with Virginia Tech, so they run the risk of being knocked out of the Coastal Division race if they don’t hold serve at home against the Hokies.
OXVT’s Tale of the Tape
Overall, the Hokies have the advantage when you use the S&P+ ratings, which is what we generally use around here. The S&P+ ranks Tech as the #12 team in the country, with Pitt coming in at #33. Here are the offensive/defensive/special teams rankings for each team, starting with the Hokies…
Special Teams: #23
The Hokies have been great defensively, very good on special teams, and their offensive efficiency is above average.
Here’s how Pitt stacks up…
Special Teams: #63
Pitt’s offense has been good, while their defense is above average and their special teams have been mediocre.
What’s dragged the Pitt defense down has been their pass defense. We’ll go into greater detail about that later in the article.
Balance Makes Pitt’s Offense Succeed
The balance of the Pitt offense has help the Panthers start their season 5-2. Despite the failures of their defensive secondary, Pitt has been able to score enough points to win.
Scoring offense: #22
Rushing offense: #20
Passing offense: #107
Total offense: #60
Passing efficiency: #28
Pitt doesn’t throw the ball a lot because they are a run-heavy team, but they are one of the most efficient passing teams in the nation. Their rushing yards combined with their efficiency through the air means that the Panthers have put up a lot of points this season…
Penn State: 42-39 W
Oklahoma State: 45-38 L
UNC: 37-36 L
Marshall: 43-27 W
Georgia Tech: 37-34 W
UVA: 45-31 W
Pitt hasn’t scored fewer than 37 points against any FBS program on their schedule. That being said, they haven’t exactly faced any defensive stalwarts either…
Penn State: #53 in total defense
Oklahoma State: #104
Georgia Tech: #27
Virginia Tech: #11
The defense they will face on Thursday night will be by far the best defense the Panthers have faced all season. On the other hand, the balance that the Pitt offense brings to the table will present the Hokies with one of their greatest challenges of the season.
The Pitt offense is led by the running game, which averages 239.1 yards per contest. The Panthers spread the ball around; six players have at least 21 carries on the season.
RB James Conner (6-2, 235, Jr.): 124 carries, 531 yards, 4.3 ypc, 7 TDs
WR Quadree Henderson (5-8, 190, So.): 32 carries, 349 yards, 10.9 ypc, 3 TDs
RB Chawntez Moss (5-11, 210, Fr.): 36 carries, 223 yards, 6.2 ypc, 1 TD
QB Nathan Peterman (6-2, 225, Sr.): 40 carries, 133 yards, 3.3 ypc, 1 TD
RB Qadree Ollison (6-2, 230, So.): 22 carries, 91 yards, 4.1 ypc, 1 TD
RB Darrin Hall (5-11, 225, So.): 21 carries, 82 yards, 3.9 ypc, 0 TD
Pitt’s running backs are big bruisers, as usual. Some of those backs have had big games against the Hokies in recent years…
2015: Qadree Ollison, 19 carries, 122 yards, 1 TD
2014: James Conner, 16 carries, 85 yards, 2 TD
2012: Rushel Shell, 23 carries, 157 yards, 0 TD
Overall, here’s how the running game has gone for Pitt against Tech since 2012…
2012: 254 yards
2013: 23 yards
2014: 210 yards
2015: 166 yards
Virginia Tech only won one of those four meetings, and it’s easy to see which one: 2013, when the Hokies completely shut down the Pitt running game and sacked Panther quarterback Tom Savage eight times. (This was Dadi Nicolas’ coming-out party, when he had three sacks.)
This year’s Pitt quarterback is Nathan Peterman. He’s had a very efficient season leading the Panther offense. Peterman is 100-of-158 (63.3%) for 1,252 yards, with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He isn’t flashy, but he gets the job done in an offense that leans on the running game to be successful.
Virginia Tech can make Peterman’s job a lot more difficult if they can slow down the Panther running game. That includes Peterman himself, who does a decent job running the read option, though he’s not the mad scrambler type that has given the Hokie defense trouble in recent years. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: if the Hokies can shut down the Pitt running game and make them one dimensional, Tech will win the game. Football isn’t rocket science. Talking about it is one thing, though. Executing it on the field is an entirely different matter.
Pitt vs. Mobile Quarterbacks
For the most part, Pitt has only faced pocket quarterbacks this season. Three of six opposing FBS quarterbacks have rushed for negative yards this year, and Mitch Trubisky of UNC isn’t known for his running ability either. As a result, only one quarterback has rushed for positive yardage against the Panthers in 2016.
Here’s a look at the rushing stats of each opposing quarterback, and their stats against the Pitt defense.
Trace McSorley, PSU: 86 carries, 249 yards, 2.9 ypc, 4 TDs. McSorley has had a good year running the ball, but against Pitt he had -17 yards on nine carries (includes 33 yards lost on four sacks).
Mason Rudolph, OSU: 48 carries, -26 yards, -0.5 ypc, 1 TD. Rudolph had seven carries for -18 yards against Pitt. That includes three sacks for a loss of 22 yards.
Mitch Trubisky, UNC: 56 carries, 101 yards, 1.8 ypc, 4 TDs. Against Pitt, Trubisky had nine carries for -13 yards, including -36 yards on four sacks.
Chase Litton, Marshall: 22 carries, -87 yards, -4.0 ypc, 1 TD. Two carries for -24 yards against Pitt. Both carries were sacks.
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech: 80 carries, 284 yards, 3.5 ypc, 3 TDs. 11 carries for 55 yards against Pitt, including -9 yards on two sacks.
Kurt Benkert, UVA: 34 carries, -88 yards, -2.6 ypc, 0 TDs. Benkert had four carries for -38 yards against Pitt, all on sacks.
Only Trace McSorley of Penn State and Justin Thomas of Georgia Tech can be considered rushing threats. Thomas had a very nice game on the ground against the Pitt defense, but McSorley was completely shut down and in fact lost yardage.
The running ability of Jerod Evans has been a huge part of Tech’s offense this year. Here are his game by game rushing stats…
Liberty: 5 carries, 46 yards, 9.2 ypc
Tennessee: 16 carries, 18 yards, 1.1 ypc
BC: 9 carries, 48 yards, 5.3 ypc
ECU: 10 carries, 97 yards, 9.7 ypc
UNC: 21 carries, 49 yards, 2.3 ypc
Syracuse: 11 carries, 61 yards, 5.5 ypc
Miami: 13 carries, 98 yards, 7.5 ypc
Evans has failed to average five yards per carry just twice this season. One of those times was against Tennessee, when the Hokies fumbled the ball away and there were several errant snaps that hurt his average. The other came against UNC in a hurricane when the Tar Heels knew the rush was coming.
Something has to give on Thursday night. Evans has been a very productive runner this year on designed quarterback runs and option plays. It bodes well for the Hokies that Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas had a productive game on the ground, because Tech will hit the Panthers with similar option plays and designed quarterback runs. If Pitt can completely shut down Evans on the ground, they’ll probably win the game. On the other hand, if Evans is successful running the football, that bodes very well for the Hokies.
The Pitt Rushing Defense
Pitt has given up a lot of points this year, but most of that is because of their pass defense. Their rushing defense is one of the best in the country. Here’s how they’ve done against rushing offenses on a game by game basis…
Villanova: 33 carries, 56 yards, 1.6 ypc
Penn State: 31 carries, 74 yards, 2.4 ypc
Oklahoma State: 31 carries, 100 yards, 3.1 ypc
UNC: 22 carries, 18 yards, 0.8 ypc
Marshall: 30 carries, 104 yards, 3.5 ypc
Georgia Tech: 45 carries, 241 yards, 5.4 ypc
Virginia: 26 carries, 86 yards, 3.3 ypc
Only one team has averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry against the Pitt defense. That was Georgia Tech, whose specialty is running the football. The Panther defense relies on a lot of upperclassmen in the front seven, which is one of the reasons they are so stout against the run…
DE Rori Blair: 6-4, 245, Jr.
NT Tyrique Jarrett: 6-3, 335, Sr.
DT Shakir Soto: 6-3, 290, Sr.
DE Ejuan Price: 6-0, 255, Sr.
LB Mike Caprara: 6-0, 225, Sr.
LB Matt Galambos: 6-2, 245, Sr.
LB Oluwaseun Idowu: 6-0, 215, So.
That’s a total of five seniors and one junior in the front seven. Cracking that nut will be one of the biggest challenges of the year for the Virginia Tech offense.
The Hokies will have to pay close attention to defensive end Ejuan Price. He currently leads the nation in sacks with nine. He had 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks against Virginia Tech last season.
The Pitt Passing Defense
No matter how you slice it and dice it, the Pitt passing defense has been awful this season. Here are their traditional stats…
298.9 ypg, #122 in the nation (out of 128 teams)
144.44 pass efficiency defense, #106 in the nation
That being said, the S&P+ efficiency ratings paint slightly rosier picture…
Passing S&P: #39
Passing Success Rate: #50
Passing IsoPPP: #120
Basically what those numbers mean is that Pitt hasn’t been able to avoid the big play through the air this season. Pitt is #96 nationally in the number of passing plays allowed of 10 or more yards, #104 in plays of 20+ yards, #109 in plays of 30+ yards, #123 in plays of 40+ yards and #117 in plays of 50+ yards.
Pitt has a very talented strong safety in Jordan Whitehead, who the Hokies recruited heavily. However, the rest of their secondary lacks talent, at least according to professional scouts.
SS Jordan Whitehead: #2 FS in the 2019 Draft
FS Terrish Webb: Unranked in the 2017 Draft
CB Phillipie Motley: #51 cornerback in the 2019 Draft
CB Ryan Lewis: #100 cornerback in the 2017 Draft
Whitehead could be a first round pick, but other than him the Panthers don’t have much in the defensive backfield. Meanwhile, Isaiah Ford (who we hear is likely to declare for the NFL Draft after this season) is ranked the #4 wide receiver and Bucky Hodges is ranked the #1 tight end (even though he’s a wide receiver).
For the season, Jerod Evans is completing 62.9% of his passes for 1,605 yards, with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His quarterback rating of 166.9 ranks #9 in the country. Combine his efficiency with the talent level of Ford and Hodges, and the passing game acumen of Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen, and you’ll get a matchup that is favorable to Virginia Tech.
Pitt. There aren’t many more teams in college football that bore me as much as Pitt. I respect them quite a bit, as should any Tech fan at this point. But they still bore me. I mean their name is one syllable for goodness sake. How many other FBS team names are just one syllable? Only three: Duke, Troy and Rice. That’s just boring. Go ahead and file this paragraph away as the most meaningless analysis you’ve read on TSL all year.
On paper, Virginia Tech is the better team. Both teams can score, but the Hokies have the major statistical edge defensively, and they’ve also been better than Pitt on special teams. But Tech is a better team than Syracuse, too, but that didn’t stop the Orange from beating the Hokies 31-17 in the Carrier Dome.
Virginia Tech has not fared well recently as a ranked team. Let’s go back to the end of the 2011 season…
December 3, 2011: #5 Hokies lose 38-10 to #21 Clemson
January 3, 2012: #17 Hokies lose 23-20 to #13 Michigan
September 3, 2012: #16 Hokies beat Georgia Tech 20-17
September 8, 2012: #15 Hokies beat Austin Peay 42-7
September 15, 2012: #13 Hokies lose 35-17 to Pitt
October 12, 2013: #24 Hokies beat Pitt 19-9
October 26, 2013: #16 Hokies lose 16-13 to Duke
September 13, 2014: #17 Hokies lose 28-21 to East Carolina
October 8, 2016: #25 Hokies beat #17 UNC 34-3
October 15, 2016: #17 Hokies lose 31-17 to Syracuse
That’s a total record of 4-6, and one of those four wins came against an FCS teams. The Hokies simply haven’t performed well with a number next to their name dating back to the end of 2011. Just two weeks ago, when they were finally starting to get some national exposure again, they laid an egg in the Carrier Dome. They have to start playing better in games like this.
If Virginia Tech gets by Pitt on Thursday night, the Hokies will be on the brink of their first Coastal Division Championship since 2011. Their remaining three ACC opponents sport a combined record of 9-12 overall and 2-8 in conference play. Notre Dame, who isn’t a conference opponent, is just 2-5 on the season. In short, if the Hokies clear Pitt, a 9-3 or 10-2 record is not only completely feasible, but likely. This game is like Tom Hanks escaping the island in the movie Cast Away. All he has to do is get over that last really big wave, and he’s made it. Pitt is Virginia Tech’s last really big wave, on paper at least. If they clear it without getting driven under, then prepare to get really excited.
I’m uncomfortable about this game because of Pitt’s rushing defense. However, all the metrics indicate that the Hokies are the better overall football team, so I’m going with Tech.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Pitt 27
Will Stewart’s Take: Paging Tremaine Edmunds, paging Tremaine Edmunds … as I detailed in this week’s Monday Thoughts, Edmunds is coming on strong, and at this rate he’ll be Virginia Tech’s leading tackler soon. He has 26 tackles in the last two games, including 16 against Syracuse and 10 against Miami, and he is just five tackles behind Andrew Motuapuka (59 to 54) for the season.
As the “backer” linebacker, Edmunds combines with Motuapuaka (the “mike” LB) to form Tech’s inside linebacker duo. He will play a big role in stopping the traditional running game, and as a big (6-5, 236), rangy, fast linebacker, he can also spy on Pitt’s Nathan Peterman and keep him from burning the Hokies with scrambles. Edmunds is a critical component to stopping Pittsburgh’s run game, and he’s coming on strong.
Motuapuaka is much improved this season, and he’ll be tested by the Pittsburgh run game, as well. He and Edmunds don’t need to be perfect; they just need to string together two or three good plays in a row and get the Panthers off the field. If the defensive tackles can keep the offensive line off the Tech linebackers, the Hokies will have a good shot at slowing Pitt down.
Offensively, I don’t expect the Hokies to have much, if any, success running the football. The good news is that Tech has an efficient passing game led by one of the best and least-known QBs in the country in Jerod Evans.
But this game isn’t really about matchups, is it? We can see both teams’ path to victory pretty clearly. For Pitt, it’s to run the ball and stifle the Hokie offense as they have done four years running. For the Hokies, it’s to stop the run and get points and yards via the passing game.
What this game is really about is the Hokies not getting pantsed at Heinz Field. In 2012, VT had three first half points and fell behind 21-3. In 2014, the Hokies had six first half points and fell behind 14-6. At Syracuse this year, Tech was behind 17-3 at half time.
Hey, fellas: don’t do that again. Show up ready to play, punch them in the mouth (figuratively speaking), find a leader or two, and ride him/them to victory. This isn’t complicated.
By the way, Hokie fans, I meant to say this in a preseason article, but never got the chance: if Virginia Tech wins in Pittsburgh, get excited. That’s a big deal. I’ll openly admit that it feels disingenuous to pick the Hokies to win. History doesn’t tell us they will. Oh, well.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 20
Ricky LaBlue’s take: I’m actually surprised my esteemed colleagues are picking Virginia Tech, judging from our conversations this week. Perhaps I was able to convince them to see the light.
I think Pittsburgh is overrated. The offense isn’t particularly impressive and they haven’t beaten a good team all season (Penn State has grown a lot since their Week 2 defeat to Pittsburgh). Peterman doesn’t make mistakes, but I don’t feel like he’s as dynamic of a player as he needs to be in order to make plays vs. Tech’s defense. Pittsburgh’s defense is good up front, but the backend is pretty poor, as Chris mentioned.
It feels like the only stigma for the game is the fact that Tech usually stinks up the joint vs. Pittsburgh. Who’s the other team that Virginia Tech mysteriously struggles against, mainly on the road? Syracuse.
I’m not buying all the superstitious hogwash. I don’t think Tech walks into Heinz Field and blows them out, but I don’t see them losing either. I think the defensive line is playing too well for Pittsburgh to establish a ground game, and the Hokies will make enough plays in the passing game to force Pittsburgh to empty the box an help in coverage, allowing Virginia Tech to move the ball on the ground a bit.
Ricky LaBlue’s prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 13