2012 Football Game Preview: #13 Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh

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Virginia Tech faces their first road test of the season this Saturday against the struggling Pittsburgh Panthers.

Saturday will be like looking into the future, while staring into the past at the same time.  The Hokies and Panthers were rivals in the old Big East conference.  Tech departed for the ACC for the 2004 season, and Pitt will make the same jump next year.

The Panthers are on their third head coach in the last three seasons.

Dave Wannstedt: fired following the 2010 season
Todd Graham: left for Arizona State following the 2011 season
Paul Chryst: new head coach in 2012, former OC at Wisconsin

That’s entirely too much coaching turnover to go through in three years.  There are a few teams I would wish such rotten luck upon, but Pitt isn’t one of them.

Paul Chryst is the right fit for coaching football in the city of Pittsburgh.  As the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, he’s a blue collar guy in a blue collar town.  He will try to establish a team that is noted for their ability to be tough at the line of scrimmage and run the football, just like the Wisconsin Badgers.

Unfortunately, Chryst has an experienced team for the most part.  Why is that unfortunate?  Because these guys are in the middle of learning their third system in three seasons.  That’s very difficult on any player.

It showed in Pitt’s first two games of the season. They were defeated at home 31-17 by 1-AA Youngstown State.  Then (I’m guessing as a result of their decision to leave the Big East) they had to travel to Cincinnati to play just five days after the Youngstown State game.  What’s more, Cincinnati didn’t play anyone in Week One.  They basically had the entire preseason to prepare for Pitt, while the Panthers had just a few days of prep time and they had to travel.  The result was a 34-10 Cincinnati victory.

The Pitt Offense

The Pitt offense has moved the ball fairly well at times, but they have had trouble finishing drives.  Here’s a look at their drives against Youngstown State:

7 plays, 54 yards, fumble
11 plays, 75 yards, TD
10 plays, 59 yards, FG
8 plays, 14 yards, punt
3 plays, 9 yards, punt
7 plays, 36 yards, turnover on downs
10 plays, 75 yards, TD
3 plays, 32 yards, fumble

Pitt fumbled twice deep in Youngstown State territory, and they also had a turnover on downs at the YSU 22.

This is how the Pitt offense fared against Cincinnati:

3 plays, 2 yards, punt
5 plays, 6 yards, fumble
7 plays, 25 yards, punt
3 plays, 5 yards, punt
8 plays, 35 yards, punt
6 plays, 27 yards, interception
12 plays, 73 yards, end of half
12 plays, 69 yards, field goal
7 plays, 34 yards, punt
4 plays, 12 yards, punt
3 plays, 8 yards, punt
10 plays, 76 yards, punt

In the first half, Pitt threw an interception in the end zone, and they also had poor clock management, letting the second quarter clock run out at the Cincinnati 2 yard line.  They also had to punt twice when inside Bearcat territory.  The Panthers have obviously done a lot of things to beat themselves in the first two games of the season.  Why have the Panthers been that inconsistent?  Three different offensive systems in a span of three years will do that.

Pitt has a veteran quarterback in Tino Sunseri (6-2, 215, r-Sr.).  Sunseri is entering his third year as a starter.  His numbers dropped from 2010 to 2011, probably because of the change in offense.

2010: 64.5%, 2,572 yards, 16 TD’s and 9 INT’s
2011: 64.2%, 2,616 yards, 10 TD’s and 11 INT’s

He threw for slightly more yards last season, but his TD to INT ratio was poor.  Now as a fifth year senior, learning his third different offense, Sunseri is completing 64.2% of his passes (in line with his last two seasons) for 517 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.  He’s an experienced veteran, but he’s hampered by an offensive line that doesn’t pass protect very well, and he doesn’t have a real playmaking threat on the outside.

The offense does feature Ray Graham (5-9, 190, Sr.), who was having an outstanding junior season before a knee injury put him on the shelf prematurely.  Graham had rushed for 958 yards and caught 30 passes for another 200 yards before the injury struck in the eighth game of the season.  He recovered this year, and is slowly feeling his way back.  He struck Cincinnati for one big play (a 50 yard run), but overall he’s been limited in his first two weeks.  He has 174 yards and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Graham relies on quickness and change-of-direction ability.  It’s imperative that the Hokies swarm the line of scrimmage.  They can’t let Graham into the open field where he can make people miss.  I look for Bud Foster to sell out to stop the run, because I haven’t seen enough from the inconsistent Pitt passing game to make me believe that they can put up enough points against the VT secondary to win the game.

Pitt will play three big receivers: Mike Shanahan (6-5, 225, r-Sr.), Devin Street (6-4, 190, r-Jr.) and Joshua Brinson (6-2, 200, Sr.).  They also have the miniscule Cameron Saddler (5-7, 160, r-Sr.), who will play in the slot and return kicks and punts.  Look for the Panthers to challenge Antone Exum with their most experienced wide receivers and try to get him to bite on double moves.

Pitt’s offensive line is huge, and experienced.

LT: Cory King (6-6, 325, r-Jr.)
LG: Chris Jacobson (6-3, 295, r-Sr.)
C: Ryan Turnley (6-6, 320, r-Sr.)
RG: Ryan Schlieper (6-5, 310, r-Jr.)
RT: Matt Rotheram (6-6, 335, r-So.)

That’s probably as big of an offensive line that the Hokies will see this season.  However, they have struggled thus far in their first two games against Youngstown State and Cincinnati.  Pitt opponents have six sacks through two games, which ranks 92nd nationally.  They are 84th nationally in tackles for loss allowed.  Overall they are a better run blocking team than pass blocking team, so if the Hokies get the Panthers in long yardage situations, look for Bud Foster to turn up the heat.

As we know, Pitt has moved the ball okay so far, but they haven’t been able to score points.  They’ll face a different challenge this weekend.  The Virginia Tech defense is miles ahead of what Pitt went up against in the first two weeks of the season.  I think Tech’s speed on defense gives them a definite advantage against a Pitt offense that lacks playmakers at wide receiver and pass blockers on the offensive line.

If Charley Wiles wants to experiment with a pure passing rushing defensive line on third and long, this would be the team to roll it out against.  Dadi Nicholas in particularly could cause problems for Pitt on the edge of the offensive line.

The Pitt Defense

While the Pitt offense might be very experienced, it’s the other way around on the defensive side of the football.  The Panthers start just one senior on the defensive side of the ball, while two r-freshmen and three r-sophomores are members of the starting lineup.

Pitt ran a 3-4 defense a year ago, but they are back to the more tradition 4-3 in 2012.  Their starting lineup looks like this up front:

DE: T.J. Clemmings (6-6, 290, r-So.)
DT: Aaron Donald (6-0, 275, Jr.)
NT: Tyrone Ezell (6-4, 300, r-Jr.)
DE: Bryan Murphy (6-3, 255, r-So.)

Clemmings was a PrepStar and SuperPrep All-American coming out of high school.  He obviously has great size for a defensive end, but he has played in only nine career games, so he has a long ways to go to live up to his impressive high school billing.  Tyrone Ezell and Bryan Murphy are starting for the first time, and they didn’t have much experience before this season.

Aaron Donald is easily the best player on the defensive line for Pitt.  He finished last season with 16 TFL’s and 11 sacks, though for whatever reason he started just five games.  He started at end in the 3-4 defense in those 5 games, and he’s moved back inside to defensive tackle in the 4-3.  He’s a classic 3-technique defensive tackle (lined up in the B-gap between the guard and tackle, and shaded over the guard’s outside shoulder).  Tech’s tackles and guards will have to be aware of his quickness and ability to penetrate.

Donald hasn’t been as successful at getting penetration so far this season at the tackle position.  He has just one TFL and no sacks through the first two games.  In fact, none of Pitt’s defensive linemen have recorded a sack this season, and the Panthers have just one sack as a team.  They rank only 109th nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss, so this is a defensive front that is struggling mightily to get penetration.

The Panthers don’t have experienced starters on the defensive line, and they certainly don’t have experienced backups.  Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6-0, 305, So.), Devin Cook (6-4, 235, r-Fr.) and Darryl Render (6-2, 270, Fr.) are all very young players.  Overall, this defensive line is only responsible for 3.5 tackles for loss through two games.  As a comparison, Virginia Tech’s defensive line has nine TFL through two games.

Pitt’s best linebacker is Shane Gordon (6-1, 220, r-Jr.).  He has 17 tackles and two TFL’s through the first two games of the season, and he also has Pitt’s only sack of the year.  Pitt will bring an extra defensive back into the game on spread formations, and when they do they take out linebacker Erick Williams (6-3, 215, r-So.).  Williams wasn’t on the field much against Cincinnati, as the Bearcats spread the field quite a bit.

Out of spread formations, weakside linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (6-1, 220, r-Fr.) appeared to be vulnerable against Cincinnati.  The Bearcats got him isolated in the slot against wide receivers and tight ends on several occasions, and he surrendered big plays.  He’s a very young player, and it’s likely that the Hokies will try to expose him as well.

Attacking Pitt on the edge is probably the right move.  The Hokies have athletic offensive tackles, and their skilled position players are more athletic than their Pitt counterparts.  Pitt also has youth on the edge.  Besides Grigsby at weakside linebacker, the Panthers also plan to start r-freshman Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 195) at one of the cornerback spots.  They will also play Michigan transfer Cullen Christian (6-0, 195, r-So.) at corner, and possibly Jahmahl Pardner (5-11, 170, Fr.) as well.

Pitt has very experienced safeties.  Strong safety Jarred Holley (5-10, 190, r-Sr.) was a first team All-Big East player a year ago.  Free safety Jason Hendricks (6-0, 180, r-Jr.) has been at least a part-time starter for his entire career.  Despite this experience in the deep part of the secondary, the Panthers have made a habit of giving up big plays thus far.

Pitt has a decision to make.  Do they stack the interior of the line to take away the inside running game, as Austin Peay did?  Or do they play the Hokies straight up in the belief that their defensive tackles can handle the inside running game without help?  Considering the interior push the Hokies got – or didn’t get, rather – against Austin Peay, I’d be tempted to try the latter strategy.

At any rate, this is a team that is very attackable on the edges, as Cincinnati proved.  The only question is how much the Hokies will be able to take advantage of it.

Special Teams

Cameron Saddler (5-7, 160, r-Sr.) is Pitt’s primary kickoff and punt returner, and he can scoot.  A.J. Hughes needs to have a good day punting the football so that Saddler’s return abilities are neutralized.  Big plays on special teams will fire up an underdog like nothing else, and the Hokies need to prevent that.

Matt Yoklic (6-4, 215, r-Jr.) is Pitt’s starting punter.  He averaged 41.2 yards per punt a year ago, and this year he’s averaging 44.8.  However, Pitt’s net punting has only been mediocre.  It ranked #62 nationally last year, and is currently #70 this season.  I think Tech will probably use Kyshoen Jarrett as their primary punt return (which is scary, considering the depth in the secondary), and he’ll have a chance to make big plays against the team to which he originally committed as a senior in high school.

Kevin Harper (5-10, 175, r-Sr.) has a pretty strong leg.  In fact, he is tied for the Heinz Field record for longest field goal (52 yards) that was originally set by Pittsburgh Steeler Jason Reed back in 2010.  He was only 21-of-31 a year ago, but he has the leg to make long kicks.

Virginia Tech played well overall on special teams against Austin Peay last week.  Playing well two weeks in a row would hopefully be the beginning of a nice trend.


Short week or not, I was unimpressed with what I saw from Virginia Tech this past weekend.  They didn’t play well.  Even the defense wasn’t at their best, though perhaps they were just bored from watching the offense stumble around in the first (I’m kidding … or am I?).

The good news is that the offense is capable of playing much better.  They got a push up the middle when they needed one against Georgia Tech.  They threw the ball very well against Georgia Tech … again, when they needed to.  They played much better against Austin Peay in the second half than they did in the first half.

What’s the next step?  Playing well for an entire game.  Actually, I’d probably be okay with them playing well for three quarters.  It would represent a step in the right direction.  When thinking about the VT offense vs. the Pitt defense, I’ve got a couple of big questions that need answering: what will Pitt throw at the Tech offense that the Hokies won’t be prepared for, and how long will it take them to make adjustments?

Against GT, we saw Al Groh completely change his defensive front.  Against Austin Peay, the Governors stacked it up inside the tackles, and it took the Hokies a half to start running the ball to the outside.  They might not be able to afford to wait that long against Pitt.

Defensively, look for a lot of zone from the Hokies this week.  If Pitt comes into this game thinking they are going to get the man schemes Bud Foster ran against Georgia Tech and Austin Peay, I think they’ll be in for a surprise.

To me, this season is just beginning.  That first game was against such a unique opponent, and the Hokies basically only practiced for two days against Austin Peay.  Beginning this weekend, we’re about the start finding out exactly what we’ve got.

Chris Coleman’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pitt 10

Will Stewart’s Take: I don’t think you can draw a lot of conclusions from the performance of either team in their first two games, especially their most recent games. Yes, Virginia Tech is a better football team than Pittsburgh. But the Hokies are better than they showed against Austin Peay, and Pittsburgh is better than they showed against Cincinnati.

What does that mean for this game? For the Hokies, it means — at least I hope — that they have a better feel for what they can do on offense with two games in the books, and will adjust accordingly. As others have said, including Raleigh Hokie in today’s Austin Peay analysis, this is really Virginia Tech’s second game. The first one was just reaalllly long.

For the Pittsburgh Panthers, it means they’ve had nine days rest after a horrendous first five days to start the season. Losing to Youngstown State at home, then packing your backs for a roadie and getting hammered on the road, is best not analyzed too closely. They just need to hit the reset button, like the Hokies did back in 2010.

I think the atmosphere for this game is going to be bad. Pittsburgh only turned out 40,837 fans for the Youngstown State opener, then they lost, and then they lost again. Yes, VT is #13 in the nation and the rivalry was really getting nasty right before the Hokies left for the ACC, but that was almost ten years ago. Where have you gone, Walt Harris? A long way away, that’s where. Most Pitt fans are probably hitting the snooze button, waiting for the team to get better before they re-engage.

That will play right into the Hokies’ hands. Virginia Tech is a good road team. Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the Hokies have a nation’s-best 13-game winning streak in true road games (non-neutral venues).

Not to be arrogant about it, but the Hokies should win this one easily, and should start showing progress on offense … start.  I think the Hokie defense will be sharp, but the offense will still be working the kinks out, and that will keep the score down.

Will Stewart’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Pittsburgh 10

18 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Regarding thoughts on the offensive approach early in game and adjusting “slowly”. I am not doubting those are issues and factors but if we execute better..meaning Coleman doesn’t fumble.. LT doesn’t sail passes high.. and WRs catch the balls in their hands..it is less about adjusting to the defense and more about the plays that killed drives. Coleman’s fumble had nothing to do with what the Austin Peay defense was doing. He had a big gain that might have jumpstarted the offense. And Thomas was running against Groh’s changed up defense and having success. We talked about his adrenalin being a cause for his high throws, not GT’s defense.

    Again, not discounting the need to adjust. Just saying we could have done just nicely against those defenses had certain things happened that were in our control.

    1. Very good point 89′. Maybe if we successfully completed the plays w/o drops, over throws and fumbles, then we would be complementing the offense. I like the glass half full approach.

  2. “Virginia Tech faces their first road text of the season this Saturday against the struggling Pittsburgh Panthers.”

    A road text can get you in trouble, huh? Chris needs another or maybe a new editor.

  3. Hey Chris….Al Groh coaches for GT not UVA…..but I know what you meant! Great preview as always.

  4. Love reading the previews to know what to look for.
    I would love to hear just how good (or bad) the VT offensive coaches are at making in-game adjustments. Obviously Bud Foster does a tremendous job.
    Have any opponent coaches or players ever mentioned what they thought of VT’s in game adjustments? Are we slower than other teams at making them? Just wondering.

    1. I thought we were quick last year with O’Cain in the booth. Much quicker than in previous years under Stiney. We’ll see. Hopefully last week was just random.

      1. Chris, what is the significance of Stiney being back in the booth? I remember him saying last year how much he enjoyed being on the sideline. Perhaps I am reading too much into it too soon, but the play selection in the first two games reminded me more of the days when Stiney called plays than when O’Cain called them last season.

        1. I read somewhere Coach Sherman wanted to be on the field with his receivers, and that had something to do with Stiney being in the booth. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and maybe I’m “misquoting” but I think Stiney is upstairs because of something like that. You need two coaches upstairs, one doesn’t cut it.

        2. Will and Chris have mentioned in other articles that it most likely is becase WR coach Kevin Sherman was up in the box with O’Cain last year and he needs to be down on the field to help coach our young WR’s face-to-face.

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