Virginia Tech has played in plenty of important games this season, but none may be as important as Thursday night’s affair with Pittsburgh.
The No. 25 Hokies find themselves within inches of all but locking up the ACC Coastal Division crown. A win over the Panthers on Thursday night at Heinz Field would make Tech 4-1 in the conference with tiebreakers over North Carolina, Miami and Pittsburgh. The Panthers would meanwhile fall to 2-2 in the ACC with losses to both the Hokies and North Carolina.
While Pittsburgh boasts a strong run defense, their run offense is the key that makes the engine run. The Panthers have run the ball 331 times this season, compared to just 161 pass attempts. The Panthers are 20th in the nation in rushing, but 107th in the nation in passing. Despite not being prolific through the air, Pittsburgh is in the top-40 in third down conversions.
A lot of that is due to quarterback Nathan Peterman, who completes more than 63 percent of his passes and has thrown just two interceptions all season.
“Some people label quarterbacks as game managers, but I don’t believe in that,” said Virginia Tech Head Coach Justin Fuente. “I think the young man we’re about to play is a playmaker. Obviously it’s centered around running the football, but he can make big plays in the passing game coming off play action, they’ve got some really good schemes in obvious passing situations that can give you problems. He’s been judicious with the ball and kept the chains moving, which has allowed them to continue to run the football.”
Pittsburgh Head Coach Pat Narduzzi said on Wednesday that Peterman has grown as a passer with more playing time.
“The last couple weeks, I’ve seen him grow more on third down,” Narduzzi said. “He’s made some plays in the passing game, he makes a lot of great checks at the line of scrimmage, but he’s made some nice third down throws that we’ve needed him to make all year. I think the last couple of weeks he’s done that.”
Peterman is assisted with one of the better rushing attacks in the country. James Conner, who returned to the team this season after battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leads the team in rushing with 531 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Quadree Henderson has also amassed 349 yards rushing on just 32 carries.
Virginia Tech’s Woody Baron said that Pittsburgh makes it clear from the first play that they want to move the ball on the ground at all costs.
“We’ve played these guys a couple times now. Like I said, you know what you’re getting,” Baron said. “This team really doesn’t want to sugarcoat anything. They want to run the ball and when you turn on the film, that’s pretty evident.”
“They’re going to give you a handful of plays from multiple formations,” said Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster. “I mean, they’ve got big backs. Offensive line-wise, I think they’re the best that we’ve seen to date and maybe the best we see all year.”
Henderson is Pittsburgh’s most versatile weapon. He’s caught 17 passes for over 10 yards per reception and has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his short career.
Fuente said that he hopes Joey Slye and Mitchell Ludwig can help neutralize Henderson in the return game, but that they need to be ready in case Henderson is able to return a kick or two.
“(Henderson) is a heck of a football player,” Fuente said. “They do a great job with their scheme and they’re kind of a non-traditional scheme, but it really fits their personnel and they’ve done a great job with it. It’s been highly productive.”
Pittsburgh has some weapons on offense, but the Virginia Tech defense has just as many. Narduzzi praised the Virginia Tech defense on Wednesday, saying that all three levels are playing well.
“The thing that makes it the most concerning is that they’re the best defense we’ve faced all year,” Narduzzi said. “With Nigel Williams and Woody Baron and Ken (Ekanem), Vinny (Mihota) at the defensive end spots, and (Motuapuaka) at the middle linebacker spot, they’ve got a great front seven, a well-tackling secondary. We’re going to have to make some people miss.”
Baron is coming off of a game where he dominated Miami at the line of scrimmage, where he registered 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. His presence could be key in slowing the Pittsburgh offensive attack.
“(Baron’s) playing as well as any defensive lineman we’ve had here in my tenure as a coordinator,” Foster said. “Just very active, very physical at the point of attack. Technique and fundamental-wise, he is just very sound fundamentally, and recognizes play-side and back-side, can get off a block. Really works at it as far as pass rush. Just tell the young kids, he’s a great guy to look at and pattern yourself after.”