There’s no rest for the weary. Except, there just might be this week. Coming off its third loss in the last four games, Virginia Tech is scheduled to hit the road and head north to face Pittsburgh this Saturday at 4 p.m.
However, the circumstances are precarious for Pat Narduzzi’s squad. They paused team activities last week and had to postpone the game against Georgia Tech due to COVID-19 issues, leaving this week’s matchup with the Hokies up in the air.
“We deal with uncertainty every day,” head coach Justin Fuente said during Monday’s press conference. “I took my 30th COVID test today. Hopefully I’ll get the text message like I’ve gotten 29 times before that says I get to keep coming to work. You can imagine all our players or staff get a text that’s good or a phone call that is bad. We’re all dealing with uncertainty on a daily basis. This hasn’t gone away.
“I think our guys have done a great job handling it. We can’t approach this week with any different mindset. None of us really know that we’ll get to come to work tomorrow. We’ve gotten good training for uncertainty, but we shouldn’t have any in our preparation. That was one of the things I brought up to the team yesterday. You guys have to understand that we’ll figure it out when we know, but we can’t approach it any other way. We had a great workout yesterday, and I would anticipate we’ll have a bunch of guys in the building today on their day off. Kind of business as usual, but I don’t have any more information than the rest of yall.”
Pitt’s Stout Defense
If the game does go off with no hitches, Virginia Tech will be facing a Pitt team that prides itself on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers are first in the ACC allowing just 295.8 yards per game.
It’s Pitt’s dedication to stopping the running game that really puts opponents behind the chains. Through eight games, Pitt surrenders just 86.2 rushing yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. It will be a battle of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object with the Hokies leading the ACC with 262.8 rushing yards per game.
“This is a similar challenge in terms of offensively we’re going to go against a big, athletic defensive line that pressures the passer,” Fuente said. “I know that there’s nobody in America that devotes as many hats in the box to the run game as Pat does. It makes it very, very difficult to run the ball at all.
“You have to change your measurement of a successful run when you play Pitt. There are that many people in there that getting three or four yards is a pretty big task.”
The return of star running back Khalil Herbert to a more full-time role would certainly bolster Virginia Tech’s chances of getting a ground attack going. Last week, Herbert carried eight times for 49 yards after missing nearly the entirety of the game against Liberty with a hamstring issue.
“He got through the game well, no setbacks,” Fuente said of Herbert. “I hope he gets to practice more and on a more consistent basis, so we can move past it, but I also know how those things can be. They can be a little fickle for guys that are that explosive and have that much muscle mass in their hamstrings. I’m hopeful that he takes a full load of practice this week and everything is good.”
Opt Outs in the Program
Fuente announced during the presser that linebacker Keshon Artis and defensive end Zion Debose have opted out for the remainder of the season. In limited action, Artis tallied three tackles on the season, while Debose had six tackles and a sack.
Earlier this morning, Louisville’s star running back and the ACC’s leading rusher Javian Hawkins opted out as well. It brings up the question if more teams are going to see players opt out down the stretch, especially when a team is out of contention for a conference title.
“That’s part of what we’re dealing with this year. Kind of the way things are,” Fuente said. “You see it across the country. We’ve been fantastic. Our guys have been incredible. Every coach I talk to at midfield talks about that. I’ve had one tell me they had 14 (opt-outs) before the season even started. It’s another added challenge, but our guys have been great. I’ve been really proud of them… We’ll see how it goes as we go through the season, but I feel really good about our guys’ mindset.”
Some Notes on Individual Players
Alan Tisdale didn’t play in Saturday’s contest against Miami. In his absence, Dax Hollifield had his best performance since he arrived in Blacksburg. The junior flew around the field, collecting 13 tackles and a sack.
“Alan had been sick, non-COVID, but he had been sick and missed a couple of days of practice,” Fuente said. “He’d been a little beat up, quite honestly, so he didn’t practice as much during the week. Dax has been fantastic, playing on special teams, and he’s played really well defensively. We’re asking a lot of him. He’s working at both positions which, as an offensive guy, I’m not sure I had enough respect for how difficult that is. There’s quite a bit that comes with both of those two spots. He played with fantastic emotion and effort like you would expect.”
Another breakout performer on Saturday was Jalen Holston. Holston played with an edge, toting the rock four times for 36 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up a hard-earned first down on an 8-yard reception, and made his mark in pass protection and on special teams.
“I tell you, he’s been fantastic on special teams. Has played hard, he’s a really smart kid,” Fuente said. “He played really well on special teams and earned playing time at running back and was really effective. I would anticipate that his role will continue to increase as we go through the remainder of the season.”
Quincy Patterson entered the game for the first time since he filled in for an injured Braxton Burmeister against NC State. In his one rep on a third-and-1, Patterson used his physical frame to pick up nine yards and the first down on the carry. Will a short-yardage package be utilized more in the future?
“We’ll see as we go through the week,” Fuente said. “Braxton is still dealing with a bit of a deal that has slowed him up a little bit. We’re continuing to work Quincy, and we wanted to get him in there on some short yardage stuff. That may be something that we continue to do, but we’ll just have to see.”
Defensive end Emmanuel Belmar got off to a strong start to the season with three sacks and five quarterback hurries through the first five games. However, he’s missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury.
“He was hurt,” Fuente said. “I don’t think that he’s out long-term. I hope that he practices this week.”