- Virginia Tech-Pitt, 3:30 PM, ESPNU
- Spread: Pitt -3 (per VegasInsider.com)
- Virginia Tech-Pitt rostercard: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Pittsburgh, PA Weather: Click here
- Tickets from StubHub:
Virginia Tech (4-4, 3-2 ACC) will look to rebound from consecutive losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College when they face the Pitt Panthers (5-4, 4-1) on the road on Saturday.
Both of these teams come into Saturday’s game in different form. After a tough start, Pitt has won three of their last four games, with their only loss coming in a narrow defeat at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the Hokies have lost three of their last four, and they probably would have lost four games in a row were it not for a UNC fumble on the one-yard line. Still, we saw some life from Virginia Tech last weekend against Boston College, and Pitt’s entire schedule indicates that they are very beatable.
At 4-1 in the ACC, Pitt can take a huge step forward toward winning the Coastal Division with a win over the Hokies. They already have the tiebreaker over Virginia, and a win over the Hokies plus one win in their final two games against Wake Forest and Miami would lock things up for the Panthers. This will be a huge game for them, so you can expect their effort level to be extremely high.
Let’s take a closer look at the Panthers.
If Boston College is Dr. Evil, then Pitt is Mini-Me. Both teams have a lot in common, not only with their experience level, but with how they play the game, and their strengths and weaknesses. The big difference, however, is that Pitt isn’t quite as good as Boston College. They do a lot of the same things, but not quite as well.
Pitt has big, physical runners such as Qadree Ollison (6-2, 225, rSr.) and Darrin Hall (5-11, 225, Sr.) in the backfield, but they aren’t quite as big or as good as BC’s AJ Dillon. Like BC, the weakness of the offense is at quarterback, where Kenny Pickett (6-2, 220, So.) is the starter. However, he’s not as good as BC’s Anthony Brown. Pitt’s defense is also big and experienced, like BC’s, but they only rank No. 87 in the defensive S&P+ rankings, while the Eagles rank No. 28.
There are a lot of similarities between the two teams, in terms of experience and style of play. It’s like playing the same team two weeks in a row. Except Pitt just isn’t quite as good as the Eagles. Most of the statistics bear that out.
If you’re a Tech fan, that’s encouraging, because the Hokies played BC tough last week and had a good chance to win the game if not for some critical errors, especially late in the first half. Tech will be facing that same team again this week, only it’s not quite as good. The game will also not be played in Lane Stadium, where the Hokies are 1-3 this season. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not, but perhaps the Hokies could use a change of scenery for a weekend. I do know that the Hokies are 2-0 in their last two road games, and 0-3 in their last three home games. Sure, Heinz Field has been Tech’s House of Horrors since 2001, but I don’t think that really matters in this one.
The biggest difference between BC and Pitt is the fact that the Panthers run a lot more misdirection than the Eagles. In that way, the Panthers more closely resemble Georgia Tech, as Brandon Patterson covered this morning in his article. They’ll make Virginia Tech’s linebackers and safeties a little less confident when reading their run keys. Above I described them as a mini-Boston College, but in some ways they could be described as a mini-Georgia Tech as well. Their similarities to the Yellow Jackets scare me a lot more than their similarities to BC, needless to say.
Let’s take a closer look at the Panthers, including that dominant running game.
The Pitt Running Game
Ollison and Hall form a very good and very physical duo in the running game. Both guys are big, and they are both productive.
Ollison: 133 carries, 819 yards, 6.2 ypc, 7 TDs
Hall: 89 carries, 658 yards, 7.4 ypc, 7 TDs
Neither of those guys is physically as good as AJ Dillon of BC, but their style is similar, and it’s very possible that both could be drafted in May. Ollison ran for 122 yards on just 19 carries against the Hokies in Lane Stadium in 2015. However, Hall and the Pitt running game struggled against Tech last season. As a team, the Panthers ran for only 55 yards and averaged 1.8 yards per carry. Hall had 15 carries for a total of four yards.
However, that was an experienced Tech defense, for the most part. That was a defense that featured six starters who are currently on active NFL rosters (though Terrell Edmunds didn’t play that day), plus Mook Reynolds and Trevon Hill. This season’s game is a much different matchup.
Like BC, the Panthers also have a veteran offensive line.
LT Stefano Millin (6-5, 300, r-Sr.)
LG Connor Dintino (6-3, 315, r-Sr.)
C Jimmy Morrissey (6-3, 300, r-So.)
RG Mike Herndon (6-4, 310, r-Sr.)
RT Alex Bookser (6-6, 315, r-Sr.)
That’s four redshirt seniors up front for the Panthers. Overall, I believe this line is a little better than BC’s offensive line, though they are also helped by the fact that the coaching staff runs more misdirection.
The running backs aren’t the only BC players who excel in the running game. As Brandon Patterson noted this morning, the Panthers like to use plenty of jet sweeps and rocket sweeps. Here are three wide receivers to watch…
V’Lique Carter (5-9, 170, Fr.): 9 carries, 142 yards, 15.8 ypc, 2 TDs. Carter has played in just two games this year, but those two games are Pitt’s last two games. He torched Duke with seven carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns. However, he had just two carries against UVA, and he’s dinged up a bit. We don’t know whether or not he’ll play against the Hokies. Pitt could still elect to redshirt him.
Pitt has two receivers who carry the ball from time to time.
Maurice Ffrench (5-11, 190, Jr.): 15 carries, 99 yards, 6.6 ypc, 1 TD
Shocky Jacques-Louis (6-0, 180, Fr.): 7 carries, 58 yards, 8.3 ypc
The Panthers also have a very mobile quarterback in Kenny Pickett. Thanks to 147 lost yards due mostly to poor pass protection, Pickett’s running stats aren’t particularly good. However, when you take out the lost yards due to sacks, his rushing numbers look like this…
Watch for Pitt to use plenty of other options in the running game besides the traditional tailbacks. They don’t want the Hokies parking on the inside running game as they did last week against Boston College. They’ll attempt to confuse Tech’s young defense much more than Boston College did a week ago.
Keep Pitt Behind the Chains
It goes without saying that it’s beneficial to keep any offense in long yardage situation. It’s even more necessary against Pitt. Here are some of their offensive numbers in standard downs situations…
Standard Downs S&P+: No. 25
Standard Downs Marginal Efficiency: No. 34
Standard Downs Marginal Explosiveness: No. 20
Standard Downs Sack Rate: No. 60
Plays that count as “standard downs” are as follows…
Any first down play
Second-and-7 or fewer
Third-and-4 or fewer
Fourth-and-4 or fewer
In other words, any play where it would be reasonable to expect a run or a pass. In those situations, the Panthers have an offense that is one of the best in the country. However, if you get them in a passing downs situation, they are one of the worst offenses in the country…
Passing Downs S&P+: No. 112
Passing Downs Marginal Efficiency: No. 50
Passing Downs Marginal Explosiveness: No. 130
Passing Downs Sack Rate: No. 103
The Panthers can’t do much of anything in those situations, and their offensive line breaks down in pass protection. It’s imperative that the Hokies keep Pitt in as many long-yardage situations as possible.
The Pitt Defense
Pitt has been a disappointment defensively this season, considering their experience level. The Panthers start six seniors on the defensive side of the ball, and they are all redshirt seniors. They also start three juniors. You’d think that with that many veteran players on the field that Pitt would have had more consistent defensive performances. However, things have been anything but consistent.
Here’s the amount of points the Panthers have surrendered on a game-by-game basis against FBS competition…
Penn State: 51
Georgia Tech: 19
Notre Dame: 19
Pitt’s defensive performances have varied from week to week. After getting torched by Penn State, they shut down Georgia Tech’s spread option. Then the next week, they got handled by UNC. After two more bad performances against UCF and Syracuse, they held Notre Dame to 19 on the road. Then a struggling Duke offense dropped 45 on them. And finally, last week against UVA, they shut down the Hoos in Charlottesville. It doesn’t get any more up and down than that.
Overall, Pitt has been better against the run than the pass, though they can hardly be considered good at stopping either.
Rushing S&P+: No. 54
Rushing Marginal Efficiency: No. 68
Rushing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 106
Passing S&P+: No. 97
Passing Marginal Efficiency: No. 89
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 94
The Panthers even struggle to stop opposing offenses even when they know they are going to throw the football.
Passing Down S&P+: No. 94
Passing Down Marginal Efficiency: No. 80
Passing Down Marginal Explosiveness: No. 107
In short, the Pitt defense isn’t good. It’s fair and accurate to say that they’ve been good at times, but they’ve played poorly more times than they’ve played well.
I felt pretty good about this game until I read Brandon Patterson’s article this morning and read about how much misdirection Pitt throws at teams. I’d like Tech’s chances more if the Panthers ran their offense like Boston College. After last week’s defensive performance, I think the Hokies could handle that. But misdirection will hurt the ability of Tech’s young linebackers to make their key reads quickly, and a split second hesitation is the difference between shutting down a play and allowing a big gain.
On the other hand, I still feel okay about this game simply because of the law of averages. Most ACC games seem like coin flips or crapshoots this year. The Hokies have lost three of their last four games, and Pitt has won three of their last four. It’s probably about time the Hokies won a coin toss or rolled a seven again. Likewise, maybe it’s time for Pitt to crap out.
Another thing that makes me feel better about this game is that Pitt loves to play press coverage. The Hokies burned that press coverage two years ago when they had receivers who could go up in the air and beat cornerbacks for the football. If there’s anything the Tech offense does this year, it’s win those one-on-one battles on the outside. Guys like Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah and Tre Turner have been very good at that, and Ryan Willis throws an excellent ball that gives his receivers a chance. If I were Pitt, I’d probably mix things up more this week, but we’ll just have to wait and see whether or not they deviate from their usual scheme, and if so, how much.
Earlier today on the TSL Podcast (which was recorded on Wednesday afternoon), I picked the Hokies 27-24. Then I read Brandon Patterson’s article about Pitt’s misdirection, and I got a lot more worried than I previously had been, as someone who hasn’t watched the Panthers play this year. I’m not a big fan of changing my pick from the Podcast to the preview, but I do have to ask myself a question: is that misdirection that Brandon told us about this morning worth at least another four Pitt points?
My answer to that question, unfortunately, is yes. I hate to do it, but…
Chris’s Prediction: Pitt 31, Virginia Tech 27
Will Stewart’s Take: I’m going to be bullheaded here and pick the Hokies. For reasons I can’t explain, I feel good about this game. Is the matchup bad, from an experience level? Yep. Could Pitt’s power/misdirection running game give Tech’s defense fits? Yep. Could the Hokie offense fail yet again to score 30+ points? Yep.
The single most worrisome part of this matchup to me is Pitt’s older players against Virginia Tech’s young players, and the fact that the Panthers don’t play many young players.
Researching Pitt: Pitt has 19 seniors on their roster, and all but one of them (RB Darrin Hall) redshirted. The Panthers list 30 true freshmen on their roster, and as far as I can tell, only one of them (WR Shocky Jacques-Louis) plays regularly. That's impressive roster-building.
— Will Stewart (@WillStewartTSL) November 7, 2018
(I’ve since learned that V’Lique Carter played against Duke and UVA, so make it two true freshmen. But that’s still a low number.)
For that reason alone, given the closeness of this rivalry, picking Pitt is the thing to do. But I’m not gonna. Logic, reason, and matchups aside, I just can’t see this Pittsburgh team moving to 5-1 in the ACC, or this Virginia Tech team losing its fourth game of the last five, including its last three.
How are the Hokies going to get it done? I’m not really sure. This is a leap of blind faith, one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 24