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Virginia Tech (7-3, 3-3 ACC) will look to break a two game losing streak when Pitt (4-6, 2-4) comes to town for a Saturday afternoon game in Blacksburg.
The Hokies will be celebrating Senior Day, with several very popular players such as Greg Stroman, Wyatt Teller, Cam Phillips and Brandon Facyson saying their goodbyes to the home crowd. Their teammates want to send them out with a win, and on paper, they should do so against a 4-6 Pitt team.
Football games aren’t won on paper, however, and some of the numbers and matchups point to a very close game on Saturday. I’m preparing for one of those “three and a half hour stomach aches” that Justin Fuente talked about earlier this season.
The Ineffective Pitt Passing Game
Last season, Pitt had a very good passing game to work with their dominant running game. Nate Peterman, who will start for the Buffalo Bills as a rookie this weekend ahead of Tech’s own Tyrod Taylor, completed just over 60 percent of his passes for 2,855, with 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He was an excellent college player and the only quarterback to beat the Clemson Tigers last season.
This year’s Pitt quarterbacks have not been effective, particularly since original starter Max Browne was lost for the season with an injury. His replacement, Ben DiNucci (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, r-Sr.), has not been good through the air. For the season, he is 84-of-150 (56 percent) for 1,037 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
DiNucci has thrown for 200 yards just once this season. That came against Oklahoma State, a game Pitt lost 59-21. His best performance since then came against NC State, when he was 19-of-32 for 170 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. The Panthers aren’t lighting the college football world on fire with the passing game.
Here are Pitt’s passing game efficiency numbers for the season…
Passing S&P+: No. 63
Passing Success Rate: No. 56
Explosive Passing Plays: No. 120
The Panthers have been a little bit more efficient than DiNucci’s numbers would indicate, though Max Browne’s numbers are also included, and he was having a better season. However, Pitt hasn’t been able to make big plays in the passing game no matter who has been at quarterback.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s passing defense looks like this…
Passing Defense S&P+: No. 20
Passing Success Rate: No. 5
Explosive Passing Plays: No. 130
If anybody is going to allow explosive plays against the Pitt passing game, it’s going to be Virginia Tech. On the other hand, if the Hokies are ever going to stop somebody from hitting big plays in the passing game, it’s going to be this Saturday against the Panthers.
Terrell Edmunds is out for the season. How will things be different for the Hokies with Khalil Ladler at free safety rather than Edmunds? That’s what we really want to know. I’ll cover that later in the article, after we talk about the strength of the Pitt offense: the running game.
The Pitt Running Game: Big Backs, as Usual
Pitt’s running game has been the strength of their offense this season. Here are their efficiency numbers on the ground…
Rushing S&P+: No. 15
Rushing Success Rate: No. 10
Explosive Rushing Plays: No. 75
While the Panthers haven’t been particularly explosive on the ground, they’ve run the ball very effectively. They are led by two big running backs.
Darrin Hall (5-foot-10, 220 pounds, Jr.): 103 carries, 594 yards, 5.8 ypc, nine touchdowns
Quadree Ollison (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Jr.): 74 carries, 330 yards, 4.5 ypc, five touchdowns
Ollison had 19 carries for 122 yards (6.4 ypc) and a touchdown in a rainy game in Lane Stadium in 2015, and he’ll be looking for a repeat performance on Saturday night. However, Hall will likely be Pitt’s primary ball carrier, and he’s never taken a handoff against the Hokies before.
Pitt’s running game has even excelled when starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead (5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Jr.) has taken carries. Whitehead picked the Panthers over the Hokies coming out of high school. He’s a very good safety, and even as a running back this year he’s done well with 21 carries for 145 yards (6.9 ypc) and a touchdown. I don’t believe it’s likely that he’ll get carries against Tech this weekend, but it’s possible.
I wasn’t sure about Ben DiNucci’s running ability. He wasn’t putting up particularly good running numbers…until he faced UNC, that is. Against the Tar Heel defense, he had 14 carries for 83 yards (5.9 ypc). He had never run for more than 22 yards in a game before last weekend. If DiNucci has truly found his running game, then that will make the Pitt running game even more difficult to defend.
Free Safety: Ladler or Mook?
With Terrell Edmunds missing the remainder of the season because of shoulder surgery, his replacement will likely be either redshirtfreshman Khalil Ladler (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) current whip/nickelback Mook Reynolds (6-feet, 191 pounds, Jr.).
Ladler was a 4-star recruit with a big offer list as a cornerback, but he tore his ACL as a senior in high school and was moved to rover as soon as he was healthy enough to play at Virginia Tech. He backed up Reggie Floyd in the early parts of this season, and he looked physical in his limited time on the field.
However, when Divine Deablo broke his foot against Old Dominion, Ladler was moved to free safety. He’s a young player already, but now he’s a young player with less than two months of experience at his current position, and if he starts on Saturday, he’s going to have to make calls in the secondary while also worrying about his own defensive role, and that’s a big task for such a young player.
What I do like about the possibility of having Ladler at free safety is that he’s only 180 pounds, and that could help him in coverage. Terrell Edmunds struggled in space against slot receivers this season after adding a lot of weight in the offseason. Could a guy who was recruited as a cornerback be a better coverage fit there than Edmunds? It’s possible.
Ladler will also be challenged right away by Pitt slot receiver Quadree Henderson (5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Jr.). Henderson has 14 catches for 150 yards and 30 carries for 202 yards. He will challenge Ladler both in the running game and the passing game. His work in the return game (more on that later) shows that he’s a dynamic athlete in the open field. I expect the Panthers will try to use him to challenge Ladler.
Two things concern me about Lader…
- His experience, or lack thereof. Is he going to miss a coverage call? Is he going to make a mental mistake and blow an assignment that leads to a big play? You never know what you’re going to get with such a young player.
- The free safety has run fit responsibilities on the wide side of the field. Pitt’s top two running backs outweigh Ladler by 30 pounds and 40 pounds, respectively. From what little we’ve seen, Ladler is a very physical player, but that’s a lot of pounds to be giving up.
The other option would be to start Mook Reynolds at free safety, with redshirt senior Deon Newsome taking over Reynolds’ spot at whip/nickelback. This would be the more experienced choice. However, there are rumors about Reynolds’ health as well, though he is reportedly practicing this week. At 191 pounds, Mook also has a size disadvantage with his run fits against bigger backs, though he would bring more experience to pass defense.
I’m not exactly sure what Bud Foster and Justin Fuente will decide. On one hand, it would make sense to go with experience and start Reynolds at free safety, with Newsome at whip. On the other hand, Reynolds has been such a great whip for his entire career that it would be difficult to move him out of his natural position. He was moved from whip to safety role last week against Georgia Tech, and he struggled to make the adjustment, yielding a long touchdown pass that gave the Yellow Jackets the game, and nearly allowing another on the first play of the game.
I don’t know what Bud Foster will do. It will likely be decided by how each player performs in practice this week.
Can the Hokies Run the Football?
Pitt is 49th nationally in rushing defense (rushing yards per game), but the advanced stats tell a different story. The advanced stats show that the Panthers have been inefficient against the run throughout the course of the season.
Rushing defense S&P+: No. 100
Rushing defense success rate: No. 117
Rushing defense explosive plays: No. 46
The Panthers have managed to stop big plays, but their overall success rate stopping the run has been low.
My take is that in this particular case, the advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, or even most of the story. The Panthers were shredded by Georgia Tech for 436 yards, and again by NC State for 248 yards. Other than that, their rushing defense numbers have been pretty good. Here’s what they’ve done over the last three games…
North Carolina: 32 carries, 96 yards, 3.0 ypc
Virginia: 31 carries, 102 yards, 3.3 ypc
Duke: 26 carries,76 yards, 2.9 ypc
While it’s true that those three teams aren’t good running teams, neither is Virginia Tech. The Hokies are averaging just 3.7 yards per carry this season, and they rank No. 99 in the country in yards per carry. Their 3.43 yards per carry against Power 5 opponents ranks No. 80 nationally. This is a football team that has struggled to run the ball for most of the season. The lack of big plays has been the general culprit…
Rushing S&P+: No. 69
Rushing Success Rate: No. 61
Explosive Rushing Plays: No. 128
Let’s look further at Tech’s lack of explosive running plays…
10-plus yard runs: 41, No. 98 nationally
20-plus yard runs: seven, No. 115 nationally
30-plus yard runs: three, No. 103 nationally
40-plus yard runs: one, No. 104 nationally
Fans comment on Josh Jackson’s lack of running ability, but he’s the only player on the team with a rush of over 40 yards this season — his 46 yard run against West Virginia that set up the game-winning touchdown. The Hokies have just three runs of 30 or more yards this year. Notre Dame has 25. Arizona has 27. When you can’t generate any big plays in the running game, you are going to get shut down. There is no offense in college football that can drive the length of the field at five yards a pop. There have to be some big plays involved.
Despite Pitt’s rushing defense efficiency numbers, I just don’t see the Hokies mounting an effective running game against the Panthers. Yet again, things will fall on the shoulders of Tech’s banged up redshirt-freshman quarterback and his limited group of receivers.
Concerning Matchups in the Passing Game
Pitt strong safety Jordan Whitehead is a very good player, but overall the talent level of Pitt’s secondary doesn’t scare you. Neither do their overall numbers.
Pass Defense S&P+: No. 64
Pass Defense Success Rate: No. 41
Pass Defense Explosive Plays: No. 117
The traditional stats are even worse, with the Panthers ranking No. 111 in the country in passing defense.
But after last year’s game, all Tech fans are familiar with how Pitt plays. They play tight man coverage and leave their cornerbacks out on an island. You have to have wideouts who can get some separation, and they have to have the ability to make plays in the air over defensive backs. Last year, Tech’s receivers feasted on the Pitt secondary…
Isaiah Ford: 10 catches, 143 yards, one touchdown
Bucky Hodges: six catches, 145 yards
Cam Phillips: six catches, 109 yards
Ford and Hodges are gone, and Phillips hasn’t looked like the same player since he injured his ankle against Boston College. This group of Tech receivers hasn’t been able to get any kind of separation against even mediocre defensive backs, and they haven’t shown the ability to go up in the air and make plays over defensive backs.
In short, this isn’t a good matchup for the Virginia Tech passing game. That begs the question — if we don’t think the Hokies are going to be able to run the football, and this is a bad matchup in the passing game, exactly how is Tech going to be able to move the football and generate points?
The Hokies have an advantage on special teams this week, though not as big an advantage as they had last week. Tech ranks No. 9 nationally in the FEI special teams efficiency ratings, while last week’s opponent Georgia Tech ranks No. 124. We saw the Jackets drop a punt snap, fumble a punt return, and fumble a kickoff return, and somehow the Hokies couldn’t turn any of those mistakes into points.
Pitt is a solid No. 37 in special teams efficiency. I expect a lot of punting on Saturday, and that punting could decide the outcome of the game.
Pitt punt return efficiency: No. 4
Virginia Tech punt efficiency: No. 33
Quadree Henderson has returned two punts for touchdowns this season. His battle with Virginia Tech’s punt coverage team, which has been very strong all season, should be fun to watch.
Virginia Tech punt return efficiency: No. 9
Pitt punt efficiency: No. 111
Pitt opponents are averaging 12.8 yards per punt return, including one return for a touchdown. Greg Stroman has proven to be one of the best punt returners in the country.
If either Henderson or Stroman is able to bust a big return, that could end up being the difference in the game.
Georgia Tech had to beat Virginia Tech to make a bowl game. Technically that’s not true, but considering their last game of the season is against Georgia, last week’s game was basically a must-win contest for the Yellow Jackets. It’s the same this week for Pitt. With a 4-6 record, the Panthers have to beat the Hokies on Saturday in Blacksburg to qualify for a bowl game. Even if they do, they still aren’t going to get one, because they host Miami in the last game of the season.
Pitt isn’t very good, but there are certain things about them that scare me. I don’t like how they play their corners against wide receivers, I don’t like the thought of their big running backs against Tech’s 180-pound free safety, and I don’t like Virginia Tech’s injury situation.
Against West Virginia, the Hokies started five players on offense who are now either out, or banged up — Josh Jackson, Cam Phillips, Steven Peoples, CJ Carroll, and Yosuah Nijman. We’ve seen what the pass blocking looks like without Nijman, and having the best passer and best receiver also banged up doesn’t help matters. Defensively, Tech’s top two free safeties – Terrell Edmunds and Divine Deablo – are now done for the season. Against Georgia Tech, we saw Tim Settle and Trevon Hill suffer leg injuries, and we don’t know their status.
Not much is going right for the Hokies right now. We knew they couldn’t afford a rash of injuries, and though they stayed pretty healthy for the first two months, they are not healthy now. At least they’re playing at home, and at least they are playing a Pitt team that hasn’t been particularly good this year. I’ll pick Tech in a very close one, though I’m not confident about it.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Pitt 20
Will Stewart’s Take: Okay, I get that this is a bad matchup for the Hokies, but I’m not going to pick Pittsburgh to win. I’m just not. So let’s take the “Virginia Tech is going to win by doing this” approach, which is a homer way of “predicting” how a game is going to go.
To win, the Hokies are going to have to play effective rush defense, which is not going to be easy, because Darrin Hall is on a roll the last three games.
- Duke: 24 rushes, 254 yards, 10.6 ypc, three touchdowns
- Virginia: 25 rushes, 111 yards, 4.4 ypc, one touchdown
- UNC: 23 rushes, 121 yards, 5.3 ypc, four touchdowns
- Total for 3 games: 72 rushes, 486 yards, 6.8 ypc, eight touchdowns
That’s more than a little scary, and that doesn’t even begin to address the presence of Quadree Ollison, or a possible running threat from Ben DiNucci or even Quadree Henderson. (Two guys on the same team named Quadree? …. Okay.)
If the Hokies can slow down Pitt’s rushing game and force the Panthers into the passing game, they’ll have to prevent big passing plays. That’s also a challenge, with the shuffling that is going to occur in the defensive backfield, due to Terrell Edmunds being out.
Offensively, I’m just not going to bark up the “Hokies have to run the ball” tree. I don’t see it happening, though I’d like to be wrong. Please … let me be wrong.
Instead, I’m going to put my faith in the VT coaching staff to finally get the ball to the H-back/tight end combo of Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham. Last season, the combination of Sam Rogers and Cunningham had 30 catches for 349 yards and eight touchdowns. So far this year, Keene and Cunningham have 17 catches for 297 yards and no touchdowns.
I’m also going to put my faith in the VT staff to figure out a way to get the ball to their wideouts. And I’m counting on everything that went wrong against Georgia Tech, like failing to recover fumbles, to reverse this week. Lastly, the Hokies have to have the advantage on special teams, whatever form that takes.
That’s a lot of wishing and hoping.
The Hokies haven’t topped 24 points in the last three games, so picking any number over that is optimistic, but here goes.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 20
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: There’s no way Virginia Tech loses three games in a row, right? Right?
Bluntly speaking, not with Pittsburgh on the schedule. The Pat Narduzzi-led Panthers have one of the better rushing offenses in the nation, but struggle mightily to throw the ball. I can’t imagine Bud Foster allowing Pittsburgh to run up and down on his defense, considering Tech is one of the best rushing defenses in the nation.
The two keys to this game will be if Virginia Tech can avoid turning the ball over, and if they can win some battles on the outside. Under Narduzzi, Pittsburgh has been known for playing tight, man-to-man coverage on the outside, something Virginia Tech receivers have struggled with this season. However, Pittsburgh’s passing defense ranks 64th in the S&P+, so it’s not like they’re very good at it.
Ultimately, I think Virginia Tech wins this game with a big performance from Cam Phillips, and I could see Greg Stroman making another impact play. I believe Virginia Tech will right the ship on Saturday with a tough, yet comfortable win vs. a pretty bad Pittsburgh team.
Ricky’s Final Score: Virginia Tech 28, Pittsburgh 17