Virginia Tech-Pitt Preview: Defensive Slugfest Expected in Lane Stadium

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Pat Narduzzi
Pat Narduzzi brings his Pitt Panthers into Lane Stadium Saturday for a huge Coastal clash with Virginia Tech. (Ivan Morozov)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Pitt: 3:30pm, ESPN2
  • Virginia Tech vs. Pitt Betting Line: VT-4
  • Virginia Tech-Pitt roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Blacksburg weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click Here
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Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2) will play the first of two straight huge games that will decide who will face Clemson in the ACC Championship Game when the Hokies face Pitt (7-3, 4-2) this Saturday afternoon in Lane Stadium. The weather is expected to be chilly and possibly rainy, which is not uncommon for Blacksburg at this time of year.  Prepare accordingly.

Like the Hokies, Pitt’s season didn’t get off to a particularly good start.  The Panthers were beaten by Virginia 30-14 at home in week one, and then looked less than impressive in a 20-10 victory over Ohio the next week.  They then lost a close one to Penn State, 17-10, before finally getting their season on track the next week by ending UCF’s long winning streak in a 35-34 upset in Heinz Field.  Considering that the Panthers have won six of their last seven, it’s probably not accurate to call that game an upset anymore.

Pat Narduzzi and Pitt need a win in Lane Stadium against the Hokies.  If they lose, they’ll be all but eliminated from the Coastal Division race with head-to-head losses against the Hokies, Hoos and Miami.  If they beat Tech, they’ll still have a chance, though they’d have to rely on a VT victory in Charlottesville the very next week.

Narduzzi is from Youngstown, OH, the same city that has also produced Bo Pelini and the Stoops brothers.  Not bad for a city that is just two-thirds the size of Roanoke.  He’s also the former defensive coordinator at Michigan State, and his teams always play a physical brand of football.  That’s still the case this year on the defensive side of the ball, though things have changed a bit this year offensively.

Note some of the numbers in this article come from this outstanding article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by John McGonigal.

Kenny Pickett
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett (Ivan Morozov)

The Pitt Offense: Pass Heavy

Ah, the pass-heavy Pittsburgh offense.  That’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.  However, with their running game struggling this season, the Panthers have turned to a pass-first mentality.  The Panthers have attempted 408 passes this season, which is tied for No. 8 in the county and first in the ACC.  They’ve had to do so because their running game is decidedly un-Pitt like.

Rushing Offense: 131.7 ypg, No. 105 nationally
Rushing ypc: 3.65 ypc, No. 108 nationally

Pitt just hasn’t been able to get a running game going this year.  Against Power 5 competition, they average just 3.18 yards per carry and 112.71 yards per game.  As a comparison, they averaged 5.79 yards per carry and 248 yards per game on the ground against Power 5 competition a year ago.

Thus, the burden has fallen on the shoulders of junior quarterback Kenny Pickett (6-2, 225).  Pickett showed ability two years ago in the second half against Virginia Tech, but he had a tough year last year, and statistically speaking he hasn’t been efficient in 2019, either.  His completion percentage is up slightly from 58.1% to 61%, but he’s thrown eight interceptions to just 10 touchdowns, and he averages just 6.3 yards per attempt.  That last number ranks No. 94 in the country.

Despite throwing the ball so much, the Panthers have been inefficient at hitting big plays in the passing game, as the following numbers show…

20+ yard gains: 33, No. 62
30+ yard gains: 12, No. 84
40+ yard gains: 8, No. 47

For a team that likes to throw the ball a lot, Pitt doesn’t generate many plays down the field.  They are throwing the ball simply to try and move the chains.  Individually, Pickett’s passer rating of 118.99 ranks No. 93 nationally, and his QBR is No. 61.

In short, Pitt’s offense can’t run the football, so they throw it a lot, and they aren’t particularly efficient at that either.  The Panthers haven’t beaten a team by more than 10 points this year, and that includes Ohio, Delaware and Georgia Tech, and that’s mostly because their offense has failed to generate points and yards.

Bud Foster’s defense has been trending up in the last few weeks, and this is a very good matchup for them, especially if the weather is cool and rainy.  It’s also worth nothing that Pitt’s top receiver, Maurice Ffrench (5-11, 200, Sr.) missed their win over UNC with a broken jaw, and he is very questionable to play against the Hokies.  He has 75 catches on the season.  Ffrench would be a big loss for the Pitt offense.

Deshawn McClease Virginia Tech
Deshawn McClease and the Hokies won’t find much room to run Saturday against the stout Pittsburgh defense. (Ivan Morozov)

The Pitt Defense: Elite

As limited as the Pitt offense has been this season, the defense has performed at an elite level.  Check out some of these numbers…

Rushing Defense: 90.9 ypg, No. 7
Passing Defense: 207.1, No. 41
Pass Efficiency Defense: 108.37, No. 8
Scoring Defense: 20.8 ppg, No. 27
Total Defense: 298 ypg, No. 11
Sacks: 45 overall (No. 1) and 4.5 per game (No. 1)
TFL: 81, No. 11

This is a dominant defense.  It may seem like their scoring defense is a little behind the rest of the numbers, but that’s because 10 of the 22 touchdowns the Panthers have allowed this year have started in Pitt territory thanks to the ineptitude of their offense and special teams.  If this defense had a little bit of help from the other parts of the team, everybody in the country would be talking about it.

Here are some other numbers to note…

21 sacks on third down.  Opposing offenses have averaged nine yards to go on those 21 sacks, so it’s important that the Hokies do well on first and second down.

Pitt has a 23.63% Havoc Rate, which means they are recording a tackle for loss, forcing a fumble or defending a pass (interceptions and pass breakups) on nearly a quarter of their opponents’ offensive snaps.

49.9% completion rate.  This ranks No. 3 in the country.

Pitt is excellent up front, as you can tell by their sack rate, but they also have two standout cornerbacks in Dane Jackson (6-0, 190, r-Sr.) and Damarri Mathis (5-11, 195, Jr.).  With Mathis and Jackson on the field together, and Virginia Tech’s Jermaine Waller and Caleb Farley playing corner as well, there won’t be many passes completed outside the hashes. 

Against those four players, opposing quarterbacks are 71-of-178 this season, bad for a rate of 39.9%.  This won’t be a game that either quarterback will enjoy very much, most likely.

(Ivan Morozov)

Special Teams: Advantage, Hokies

Virginia Tech’s Pro Football Focus special teams rating is an 80.4, which ranks No. 2 in the ACC.  Pitt has a rating of 64.7, which is next-to-last in the ACC, ahead of only struggling Georgia Tech.  On paper, the Hokies have a massive advantage on special teams.

The advantage is especially felt in the punting game.  Virginia Tech is No. 12 in the country in net punting with an average net of 42.06 yards per punt.  Meanwhile the Panthers are No. 121 with an average net of 35.23 yards.  That’s a seven yard advantage in Tech’s favor whenever the teams exchange punts, and considering the fact that both sides will do a lot of punting on Saturday, that’s a good thing for the home team.

In fact, Pitt ranks poorly pretty much across the board on special teams.  Here are the FEI special teams ratings for the Panthers…

Overall: No. 95
Possession Efficiency: No. 113
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 84
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 109
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 15
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 76
Punt Efficiency: No. 121

Here’s how Tech ranks in the same categories…

Overall: No. 21
Possession Efficiency: No. 21
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 61
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 34
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 25
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 74
Punt Efficiency: No. 30

All the numbers indicate that Virginia Tech has a huge advantage on special teams heading into this game.

(Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech-Pitt Final Thoughts: The Gameplan

King of Hokies had a great post on the Subscribers board today.  You can read it here, but this is the part that stood out to me…

“Expect to see us run the ball on third and long so as not to lose yardage via sacks, holding, etc. This is OK. Don’t lose your mind saying Corny sucks with his unimaginative play calling. It’s OK to punt the ball and go back to where we have the advantage. Eventually our offense will score.”

I think Justin Fuente did a great job of showing his team exactly what it would take to beat Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago, and he’s always struck me as the type of coach who understands how to win field position football games.  I think he’ll do a good job again of illustrating exactly what it will take to beat Pitt, and the key word is patience.

Assuming the Virginia Tech defense has a good game, I think King of Hokies is right in that we’ll see the Hokies running draws on third and long rather than taking sacks, considering how many of Pitt’s sacks come on third down. Let’s say it’s third and seven, and you run a draw for a three-yard gain rather than getting sacked for a seven-yard loss.  That’s a 10-yard difference in field position.  Combine that with the seven-yard difference in net punting each time the teams exchange punts, and you’re talking 17 yards.  That adds up.  So whenever you see a slow developing run dialed up on third and long, remember that Fuente is thinking about what it will take to win the game, not what it will take to pick up a first down on that particular drive.

That’s a sound gameplan, and on paper it will work.  What throws gameplans like that out the window are things like big plays on special teams and turnovers.  The numbers indicate that Pitt isn’t likely to hit a big play on special teams, while turnovers are always somewhat of a crap shoot (Tech is No. 79 in turnover margin, Pitt is No. 94).  As always, I’m going to assume that turnovers are even when making my pick.

Pitt’s defense is elite, but I believe that Tech’s defensive advantage over the Pitt offense is greater than Pitt’s defensive advantage over the Hokie offense.  Combine that with the fact that Virginia Tech is clearly better on special teams, and this is a game that the Hokies would probably win seven out of 10 times.  If Tech stays patient and doesn’t lose the turnover margin battle, I think they’ll win.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Pitt 13

Will Stewart’s take: Since entering the ACC in 2012, Pittsburgh has a 4-3 advantage over Virginia Tech, including last year’s humiliating 52-22 defeat of the Hokies in Pittsburgh.

That game gave us this historic stat:

Pitt ran 47 plays and gained 654 yards. The memory of that game can never be erased, but it sure would be nice to avenge it Saturday.

On our subscriber board — if you’re not subscribing to TSL, you really should try us — AISHokie05 posts an advanced stats breakdown each week, and his breakdown this week, which can be found here, included this note: “Pitt really struggles with chunk plays as they go for 10+ [yards] on 10.9% of run plays (12th in the ACC) and 15+ yards on 13.3% of pass plays (also 12th).” In tailback A.J. Davis’s last 50 carries, he hasn’t gone over ten yards a single time. Maurice Ffrench, their best receiver (who may not play), has an average “depth of target” that is just 5.9 yards downfield, and he averages only 8.1 yards per catch.

The Pitt team that averaged 13.9 yards on 47 plays last year against Virginia Tech has been struggling all season to gain over 10 yards on any given play. So yes, play smart and patient. Win the field position battle, and wait for them to crack.

Defensively, Pitt is fierce, and I’m not looking forward to this part of the game. While the Pitt offense struggles to get over ten yards on a play, the Pitt defense rarely gives that much up. Just 9.2% of runs against Pitt go for 10+ yards (1st in ACC) and 12.0% of passes go for 15+ yards (also first).

Here’s an encouraging stat to leave you with: In 45 trips to the red zone, Virginia Tech has scored 43 times (95.6%, No. 5 in the nation), including 31 touchdowns (68.9%). Pittsburgh has made 33 red zone trips and has scored 26 times (78.8%, No. 94 in the country), including just 16 touchdowns (48.5%). The red zone defenses are comparable, with VT ranked No. 14 in the nation (72.2% scoring rate, 55.5% TD rate) and Pitt No. 25 (77.1% scoring rate, 45.7% TD rate).

This game could come down to which team can finish in the red zone. Any score in this game is a cause for celebration. This is going to be uglier than two naked fat guys hitting each other with two-by-fours. Bet the under.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Pittsburgh 13

 

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34 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. We only when the game if we put big time pressure on their QB and keep him in the pocket. If we don’t do both of those, he will make our defense look like Duke all over!!

    1. In watching their last game, their QB always scrambles to his right. I’m sure Bud noticed that, so keeping containment as you said will produce hurries and sacks.

  2. My Pitt nightmare is, since they are playing VT, they will go completely against their numbers this year and rack up huge numbers both on the ground and thru the air.

    It seems like this is what Pitt does to VT.

  3. My vocabulary is inadequate to convey how badly I want us to beat Pitt. No matter how pedestrian of a season they might be having, they always play like rabid wolves against VT. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to wash the bitter, ashen taste of last year‘s debacle out of my mouth. However, a major beat down by us on Saturday could serve as mouthwash treatment number one. we shouldn’t have to worry about whether the team and the coaching staff can get them selves emotionally prepared for this game. I don’t care if it’s 35° and rains 4 inches, I’m going. Go Hokies!

  4. Think Tisdale utilized as spy w/ his great lateral speed will be deterrent on QB Pickett scramble runs

    Cant get 2fat guy images w/2x4s our my head–lol

    Is Deshawn Crawford a go ??

  5. I don’t see Pitt burning us up on the ground, they haven’t been able to do that to anyone this year – and we are one of the best defenses they face. I’m going to be watching to see how Dax covers – that’s one of the key matchups to me, and also to see if we can effectively stop any of the quick outs and hitches. We’re going to need big games from Reggie Floyd, Divine Deablo, and Chamarri Conner. But I really like our special teams advantage – Oscar will definitely be a big factor in this game. And whether it’s Brian Johnson or Parker Romo – we need to be hitting all the field goals we try.

  6. Its time to embrace HH and the O. The efficiency is there in many categories and no defense currently on the schedule will keep them under 20 points; none! With HH and company (and the big uglies have a big part in this) no matter who we play….its going to be 30+ points.

    Did you hear me Clemson, that is you too!

  7. Ahhhh young grasshoppers have faith in the Deuce, as he has not failed you yet, though you have little faith in the Offense, regardless of the defense, as Hooker-led Hokie O is multi-dimensional, thus you can’t merely “pin one’s ears back and come after the QB”. This game plan from our QB Coach and Offensive Coordinator will be a defining moment in his career, as don’t see VT merely giving up on long 3rd downs, but rather setting themselves up on 1st down staying ahead of the sticks… key offensive down will be 2nd for VT and that’s the one where the RPO Deuce will be loose…

    VT wins this one, physical, but comfortable win.

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!
    BEAT PITT!

    1. Strangely, I am feeling that we will actually gash this Pitt defense. Don’t know why- just a gut feeling, and I don’t get those too often.

      Corny has been calling masterful games here lately and that will keep this defense on it’s heels the whole game. I also feel they will have some special plays just for Pitt. My boy HenBoss2 will have quite the day. He is the difference in this game BUT we will also get significant production from ST’s and D.

      VT 48
      Pitt. 13

  8. Tre to the left and Demon to the Right; open up the middle for Rambo (Keene) and Mitchell over the middle and Robinson on the off center to go up against the safety or Linebackers. Even a pop pass to McClease or King. Clear out the sides and open up the middle.

    GO HOKIES BEAT pitt!!!

  9. I think Pitt is just as worried about us especially playing in Lane. Chris do you have any numbers that breaks down Pitt’s defense vs dual threat QB’s and other types?

  10. Nitpicking, I know . . . I think the “all but” part of Chris’s following statement is inaccurate: “If they lose, they’ll be all but eliminated from the Coastal Division race with head-to-head losses against the Hokies, Hoos and Miami . . .” VT beats Pitt and Pitt IS eliminated, right? VT and UVA would be 5-2 and play each other, Pitt 4-3.

    1. You’re right. The winner of VT vs. UVA in that scenario would be 6-2 and get in. While there is a scenario where we win the Coastal with 3 losses, there’s not for Pitt if they lose to us.

  11. And H Hooker is the man you want running this thing.
    If it’s scrappy out there let them over pursue and watch HH make them pay. Hokies got this

    1. Put in Q as a H-back. Take a hand off from Hooker with some momentum up the middle or off tackle. Even on a fake the tackles and ends could over commit and Hooker could roll out to a lot of green space or a screen to the TE.

  12. What is it with the disturbing implied images in TSL stories lately? First quoting Mike Young’s nightmare about Burnop, and now Will has to put yet another “glad I already ate” mental picture in our collective psyche.

    Also, did you guys stutter when typing the Pitt receiver’s name?

  13. If Hooker stays in the full game and doesn’t get hurt, VT will win. Pitt knows that and he will a target Saturday for sure. I think Bud will play this game to stop the pass But Pitt will burn VT on the ground. That will be the key for Pitt, Can they break a few big plays. Hooker and Bud controls this Game.. I just Hope VT pulls this one out for Bud’s last Home Game along with the few Seniors on the Team.. Be interesting..

  14. two naked fat guys hitting each other with two-by-fours……….not a good mental image to have to go through the day with………………

  15. The 21 sacks on 3rd downs is basically 2 per game. So 2 possessions ended per game via a sack.

    Passing Defense: 207.1, No. 41… While the efficiency is nice, this stat is ok.. I guess people pass a lot if they are good against the run

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