Many Virginia Tech fans prefer to erase the memory of Pittsburgh’s 52-22 dismantling of the Hokies last year at Heinz Field. It was an embarrassment on all levels for a Bud Foster defense that allowed 654 total yards, 492 rushing yards, and nearly 14 yards per carry.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup, both teams have a lot at stake with 7-3 records and two losses in the ACC. Just like with Georgia Tech the previous week, the Hokies might want to recall the 2018 version of the Pitt game as a friendly reminder to not take the Panthers lightly with the Commonwealth Clash on the horizon.
“I think the biggest motivating factor is we can put on last year’s game and show that we were manhandled across the board,” Foster said.
In those Georgia Tech and Pitt games last year, Virginia Tech allowed 957 yards rushing. It’s been a different story this year as a still young, but more experienced defensive unit has allowed just 80.5 yards rushing per game since the Duke debacle at the end of September.
“They’re the defending Coastal Division champs,” Foster said. “They ran the ball on us like Georgia Tech ran the ball on us. There’s a lot of carryover from our defense a year ago, and I think that’s the one thing you’re starting to see is the experience come into play. The guys as far as their practice habits and their consistency to perform, you’re starting to see that come into play. We’ve got to get ready to go play.
“As good as we played this past week, it’s going to be a different game, a different mindset. It’s going to be a physical football game. Pittsburgh is big and physical on both sides of the ball. We’re going to have to get ready for a 60-minute fist fight so to speak.”
As much as it will be a different game from last week where Virginia Tech beat down Georgia Tech 45-0, this is still a different Tech team from earlier in the year, and those in the ACC are beginning to take notice.
“They’ve turned it around since the Duke game,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said during his weekly press conference. “I think everybody in the country looked and said “Man, this is going to be an easy one.” Now we get to mid-November, late November and find we’re going to have a battle on our hands down in Blacksburg.”
Offensive Line Emergence
Things could have been disastrous for Virginia Tech’s offensive line this season. Brock Hoffman was determined ineligible and incumbent starter Zachariah Hoyt went down with an injury in the opener. T.J. Jackson, the initial starter at right guard, also became hobbled by an injury early in the season.
It’s led to a youth movement where Lecitus Smith and Christian Darrisaw are the veterans of the room as a redshirt sophomore and true sophomore, respectively. Bryan Hudson and Doug Nester have filled in as true freshmen, while Luke Tenuta, a redshirt freshman, has stepped into the right tackle spot for a banged-up Silas Dzansi. It’s been all hands on deck for Vance Vice’s crew, as anyone could be called upon in a moment’s notice for their opportunity.
“You never know when your number is going to be called,” Smith said. “You could be third string and you could have a coach in the middle of the game pull you because somebody has to get out for whatever reason and pull you to tell you to get into the game. Everybody has to be ready.”
After some early season issues, the offensive line has come into form as of late, particularly in the rushing attack. Over the last five games, the Hokies have rushed for 220+ yards on four occasions. The one time they didn’t was against Notre Dame where the Fighting Irish stacked the box and challenged Quincy Patterson to beat them through the air.
So how far has Vice’s unit grown since the beginning of the season?
“A million miles,” he said. “It’s business every day for them. It’s work. They take pride in their job – and pride in what we’ve done on the field so far.
“This group has done an unbelievable job in preparation and practice. There is true, true competition at every spot. These guys are working their tails off, and when the guys aren’t in, they’re in… With those practice habits and with the way they approach practice every day, I’ve got some trust and confidence in quite a few of them. It’s paying off for us.”
Saturday’s matchup will pit two of the top cornerback duos in the ACC against each other. The Hokies improvement at the cornerback spot cannot be overstated enough, as Caleb Farley is putting in an All-ACC type season with the league’s lead in interceptions and passes defended. Meanwhile, Jermaine Waller isn’t far behind, third in the ACC with three interceptions and ninth in passes defended.
“They’ve got a bunch of ballhawks,” Pitt wide receiver coach Chris Beatty said. “Coach Foster has done a great job… He coaches those guys up. They have those guys on the back end that can run and are long and athletic and play the ball really well. They’re among the leaders in the conference in interceptions. No. 3 (Farley) is leading in interceptions and Waller is right behind him. We know it’s going to be a battle.”
On the opposite side, Pitt features Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis at its cornerback spots. Jackson and Mathis are second and fourth in the ACC respectively in passes defended, while teammate Paris Ford is third from his safety position. It’s a stout Panthers’ secondary combined with a dominant defensive front (No. 1 in the country in sacks) that could be the toughest test yet for Hendon Hooker and Co.
Reggie Floyd’s Senior Day
On a team flooded with youth, Reggie Floyd has been the only senior starter on defense the entire year. He’ll be honored Saturday for Senior Day along with Ryan Willis, Jovonn Quillen, and Ishmiel Seisay. Tyrell Smith is going the route of Kyle Chung and applying for a hardship for a sixth year of eligibility.
Floyd has been a mainstay with the Hokies’ secondary from his rover position. This year he’s tallied 52 tackles and six pass breakups. Many will forever remember Floyd for his chase down tackle against Pitt two years ago which eventually led to the goal line stand, but it’s another memory versus the Panthers that sticks out in Fuente’s mind.
“The first thing I think of is in this game Reggie’s freshman year, I’m almost positive he took one snap and that was on the punt team with like five minutes to go in the game,” Fuente said. “They were coming all block and he wasn’t a starter on the punt team. Through whatever the circumstances were, he ended up in the game as a true freshman when they were coming for a block. He executed his assignment and we got the punt off. We’ve used that as an example several times for being prepared.
“To me that said a lot about him as a young player, that he was going to be prepared. That he was eager to get his chance. He’s continued to improve both as a player and as a leader. He loves playing football. That shows in his work ethic throughout the offseason and at practice and ultimately on game day.”
When Floyd exits Lane Stadium for the final time on Saturday, he’ll carry with him a bevy of memories about what it’s meant to play football for Virginia Tech.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Floyd said. “It’s been a great four years. I’ve gotten to learn from some of the great players that have been here – Chuck Clark, Rell (Edmunds), Maine (Edmunds), Drew (Motuapuaka), all those guys. I’ve been able to watch them and mold my play around theirs and also my own style. That was a great thing to be able to do. Also, just helping the younger guys out this year and guys that are going to be coming in, whether that’s recruit or someone just watching us, to make sure we send a message that this is Virginia Tech football.”