- 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
- Tickets from StubHub:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Most yards per play in a game (vs. FBS), 2005-18:
1. 2018 Pitt vs. VT (13.9)
2. 2016 UNM vs. Wyo (13.5)
3. 2011 GT vs. Kansas (13.5)
4. 2010 NIU vs. EMU (13.2)
5. 2017 Memphis vs. ECU (13.0) https://t.co/BCUk8Axr3b
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 11, 2018
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