Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
- Saturday, Nov. 21, 4 PM, ACC Network
- Virginia Tech vs. Pitt Betting Line: Virginia Tech -3.5
- Virginia Tech-Pitt roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Pittsburgh weather: Click here
Virginia Tech (4-4, 4-3) will take on the Pitt Panthers (4-4, 3-4) this Saturday afternoon on the road. It will be a rare November game in the Steel City where the temperature isn’t freezing. The high on Saturday is 56 degrees, and normally the Hokies get it a lot worse when they make this trip every other year.
Expectations were high for Pat Narduzzi’s team this year, and like the Hokies, they started well. However, after a 3-0 start, the Panthers dropped four straight games before righting the ship 41-17 against hapless Florida State in their most recent game. Aside from a 45-3 shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame with quarterback Kenny Pickett sidelined, the losses were close. Their other three losses came by a combined 14 points, including a pair of back-to-back one-point losses to NC State and Boston College.
This week, the Panthers face a team that recently also has a habit of losing close games: Virginia Tech. Neither of these teams seems capable of blowing out the other, so when things are tight in the fourth quarter, who will falter?
The Pitt Defense: Stuff The Run, Play Man Coverage
You probably remember a couple of names from the Pitt defense from the 2016 in-state recruiting class: Redshirt senior linebacker Chase Pine and redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones II were members of that class. Both considered the Hokies, but picked Pitt for a variety of reasons.
Jones was a 235-pound defensive end from Grassfield High School. He visited Tech officially in October of 2015, and set his decision date before Justin Fuente was hired. He’s now a 260-pound monster at end, and some believe he could go off the board as early as the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Pine was a 220-pound linebacker from Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, and he’s now a 250-pound middle linebacker. He committed to Pitt very early, in the summer of 2015. Justin Fuente’s staff tried to flip him, but they were unsuccessful. He’s had a solid Pitt career as a part-time starter, but he’s having a down year as a senior. In fact, he and fellow senior linebacker Phil Campbell III (6-1, 220, r-Sr.) have been the weak links of the Panther defense thus far.
Jones, however, is one of the best players on a Pitt defense that will see several players drafted next spring. He hasn’t been quite as good rushing the passer this year, but we can probably just write that off to 2020, plus the absence of a couple of key teammates. As good as the Panther defense is, they could be even better. The two players who many consider to be their best pro prospects opted out. Defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman opted out back in August, while safety Paris Ford opted out several weeks ago, after Pitt’s season began to take a turn for the worse. This is already a very good defense, and with those players it would be even better.
Both advanced metrics and traditional stats agree that the Pitt defense is legit. Here’s how they rank in the ACC according to PFF’s ratings system…
Overall Defense: No. 2
Rush Defense: No. 1
Tackling: No. 3*
Pass Rush: No. 1
Coverage: No. 6
*Believe it or not, Virginia Tech is No. 5 in the ACC in tackling. Hardly anybody in college football seems to be tackling well this year. Many teams have had multiple players miss practice due to COVID-19, and when coaches are missing a lot of players at practice, they tend to go lighter on the contact drills. As a result, tackling has suffered around college football this season. Last year the top tackling team in the ACC (Clemson) had a grade of 78.2, while No. 2 (Pitt) had a grade of 75.7. This year, the top ACC tackling team is Miami with a grade of 70.8. Nobody else has a grade better than 69.9 (Clemson). VT is actually No. 29 out of 63 P5 teams in tackling this year, so I think it’s safe to say that tackling is down across the country.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled Pitt preview. Here are some traditional metrics for those of you who don’t like advanced stats…
Rushing Defense: No. 2
Opp. Yards per Carry: No. 1
Pass Defense: No. 45
Pass Efficiency Defense: No. 30
Total Defense: No. 9
Pitt will leave their defensive backs on an island and sell out to stop the running game. That gives them a numbers advantage in the box, which contributes to their impressive rush defense numbers. Opponents are averaging just 2.2 yards per carry against this defense in 2020. They are susceptible to big plays through the air as a result, but on the whole they still have a pretty efficient pass defense considering the style they choose to play.
Not surprisingly, the players to watch up front include the aforementioned Jones, but also the following…
- DE Rashad Weaver (6-5, 270, r-Sr.): 11.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks
- DT Calijah Kancey (6-0, 270, r-Fr.): 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks*
- DT Devin Danielson (6-1, 300, r-So.): 3 TFL, 2 sacks
- LB Cam Bright (6-0, 225, r-Jr.): 4.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks
- LB SirVocea Dennis (6-1, 230, So.): 13.5 TFL, 4 sacks
*Pitt is the new master of recruiting undersized defensive tackles and turning them into studs. Kancey wasn’t a hot name out of Northwestern High School in Miami, but he’s having a great year.
Cornerback Marquis Williams (5-9, 175, r-So.) has been Pitt’s best corner, though he’s on the small side. PFF lists four different Pitt corners (one of which I assume is a nickelback) as having played 178 or more snaps this year, with a fifth having played exactly 50 snaps. Except for Williams, cornerback has not been an area of strength, but with how dominant the Panthers have been up front, sometimes it doesn’t matter.
Pitt will sell out to stop Virginia Tech’s running game, as they do each and every week. The Hokies will have to have some success in the passing game in this one. It means the receivers need to be able to beat press coverage, and Hendon Hooker needs to be able to deliver the ball on time and accurately to hit his receivers in stride. The Panthers play so much man coverage that Hooker won’t have any trouble reading the defense this week, and the receivers should know what to do. Offensive success will come down to whether or not they have the physical talent to do it.
The Kenny Pickett Show
As recently as two years ago, the Panthers were a run-first, smashmouth football team. If you were a defensive player and you played Pitt, you knew you had to buckle your chinstrap and get ready to play big boy football. Not so much anymore. This is a team that is heavily focused on the passing game these days, for two reasons…
1: They have a very talented quarterback who will be drafted next spring, and the Panthers have also had some pretty solid wideouts.
2: Pitt doesn’t have as much talent at running back and on the offensive line as they used to.
You don’t have to be a football genius to know that when you have more talent at quarterback and wide receiver than you do at running back and the offensive line, you should probably throw it a little bit more.
The Panthers have run it 279 times this year and passed it 296 times. Those numbers include 16 sacks. Considering Pitt’s history of running the football, that’s almost hard to believe. Fortunately for Pat Narduzzi’s team, they have a good quarterback to fall back on. Kenny Pickett (6-2, 220, Sr.) wasn’t very good as a true freshman or sophomore, but he started to hit his stride last season, and he’s been very good as a senior. He’s now considered a bona-fide NFL prospect who will be selected next spring.
Here are Pickett’s numbers on the season…
Passing: 129-of-207 (62.3%), 1,599 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs
Rushing: 48 carries, 132 yards, 2.8 ypc, 6 TDs
Don’t let the yards per carry average fool you. Pickett has good mobility. His numbers have been affected by an injury that caused him to miss two games earlier this season due to an ankle injury, but he’s a quality player who can cause problems for defenses. He recently returned to action in Pitt’s 41-17 rout of Florida State, and you’ve got to figure that his ankle is even healthier since Pitt’s game against Georgia Tech was canceled last week. I’m expecting a 100% Pickett on Saturday.
His top receiver is slot man Jordan Addison (6-0, 170, Fr.). The true freshman has 52 catches for 611 yards (11.7 ypr) and three touchdowns. The next closest receiver in terms of catches is Shocky Jacques-Louis (say his name over and over…it’s fun. The last name is pronounced LOO-EE) with 22 receptions. Addison was a 4-star recruit from Frederick, MD who was recruited to Pitt by Chris Beatty, who is currently working for his seventh program since 2010. Overall, this group of receivers is solid but not spectacular. The biggest concern by far is Addison in the slot.
The running game for Pitt has not gone well. Now it’s time for some traditional stats…
Vincent Davis (5-8, 175, So.): 104 carries, 313 yards, 3.0 ypc, 3.0 ypc
AJ Davis (6-0, 215, Sr.): 35 carries, 140 yards, 4.0 ypc, 0 TDs
You can make the argument that Pickett is the best running threat when he’s healthy.
I don’t know that the problem is Pitt’s running backs as much as it is their offensive line. The Panthers have been middling in pass protection this season, but they rank just No. 10 in run blocking in the ACC, ahead of only Miami, Florida State, Syracuse and Georgia Tech. The Pitt offense is The Kenny Pickett Show because it has to be. The running game isn’t strong enough for it to be anything else.
This is the best matchup the Virginia Tech defense has faced in a long time.
Pitt appears to be solid on special teams, especially when kicking the ball. Field goal kicker Alex Kessman is 14-of-20 on the season, with all but one of his misses coming from beyond 40 yards. Overall, he’s 7-of-12 from beyond 40 yards, and 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards, so he’s capable of making them from long distances. 32 of his 47 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.
Punter Kirk Christodoulou is averaging 44.6 yards per punt this year, and only nine of his 38 attempts have been returned (and one of those was blocked). It’s doubtful that the punt return game gets going for the Hokies this week, but it’s imperative that Tech field the ball and not surrender any hidden yardage, unlike the Miami game last week.
On punt returns, DJ Turner is averaging 8.5 yards per return, with a long of 25. He’s also the primary kickoff returner, averaging 20.3 yards per return. The Panthers don’t seem to be overly dangerous in the return game. They have blocked one punt this season, and they’ve also had one blocked, so keep an eye on that.
Virginia Tech-Pitt Final Thoughts
I’m a bit divided on this one. I don’t think this is a good matchup at all for the Virginia Tech offense. Pitt shuts down everybody’s running game, and they play tight, strong press coverage on the outside. That’s the type of coverage that Tech’s receivers have struggled with this season. I’d sure like to have a healthy James Mitchell for this game, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
On the other hand, I do like the matchup for the Tech defense. Finally, the Hokies will face a team that struggles to run the football. That hasn’t happened since the BC game. Kenny Pickett is a talented player, and Addison in the slot is dangerous, but I just don’t feel quite as stressed going up against this offense as I have for most other games the Hokies have played this season.
I’ll throw out the 55-0 shellacking of Austin Peay to start the season. Here’s what the Pitt offense has done in terms of points…
NC State: 29
Notre Dame: 3
We should probably throw out FSU, Miami and Notre Dame. Pickett didn’t play against the Irish and Miami, and everybody scores 41 or more on Florida State. Generally speaking, against normal competition with Kenny Pickett, the Panthers usually score between 20 and 30 points. Of course, it took them overtime to get to 30 in that BC game.
The bigger question is how many points can the Hokies score? Last year they scored 28 against the Panthers, including a defensive touchdown. That’s pretty good, considering Tech started a bunch of freshmen on the offensive line, and the game was played in cold weather with heavy rain. If the Hokies can play as well offensively this year as they did last year, except this time in better weather, then I think they’ll win the game.
But of course, that’s a big if. I doubt James Mitchell will play. I’m sure Khalil Herbert will, but I’m not sure that’s too important this week…Tech needs playmakers in the passing game to beat the Panthers, I think. I’m not too confident in the Tech offense against this particular matchup with Mitchell out.
On the other side of the coin, Pitt’s program was shut down last week due to COVID-19 issues, and their game with Georgia Tech was canceled. We don’t know how many players were out, or at what positions, but for the game to be canceled we have to assume that it was a lot. How many guys will be available to play against the Hokies this coming weekend? Will key players be out? What will their depth situation be like? We don’t know, and we won’t know until Saturday. Heck, at the time of this writing we still don’t know with 100% certainty whether the game will be played. I assume it will, but I don’t know it for a fact.
I think the game will be in the 20s. I feel pretty good about that call. Who comes out on top is anybody’s guess. Both teams seem pretty good at losing close games, so something is going to have to give here. I figure the Hokies are a little bit more due in that regard than the Panthers.
Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Pitt 24
Will Stewart’s Take: After reading Chris’s information, doing a little research on Pitt, and reading through AISHokie05’s weekly excellent by the numbers (subscriber board link) preview, this looks like a low-scoring affair … but only if the Virginia Tech defense plays well.
This Pittsburgh defense is the absolute worst matchup for Virginia Tech’s offense. They clog the running lanes, stuff the run, and pressure the quarterback.
Borrowing from AISHokie05’s post:
“They average -0.2 yards before contact in the run game, meaning on average they make contact with the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. They’re the only team in FBS that’s doing that and only seven others are below 1.0. They generate QB pressure on 42.7% of dropbacks, tops in the ACC and 4th in FBS.”
That would give any offense the cold sweats, but Virginia Tech’s offense in particular could struggle greatly. Tech’s receivers have had trouble getting separation against man coverage, and Pitt will throw that at you all day long.
Think back to the 2016 game, won in Pittsburgh by the Hokies, 39-36. Pitt stubbornly played man coverage against Virginia Tech’s receiving trio of Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, and Bucky Hodges, and it cost them. All three of those guys went for over 100 yards receiving, as Jerod Evans put it up and they went and got it, over and over. Everyone remembers the 406 yards passing that Tech had, and what an epic battle that was.
The Hokies somehow managed to get 150 yards rushing, but it was all jet sweeps and QB runs. Tailbacks Marshawn Williams and Travon McMillian combined for 14 carries for just 26 yards.
As far as I know, Pitt still uses the same formula, but the Hokies don’t have the receiving talent they had back then (Ford is still in the NFL, and Phillips had a cup of coffee there and was briefly a star in the XFL). The traditional Tech running game is better, provided Khalil Herbert is healthy. That’s a big if.
I just don’t see how the Hokies offense will be very productive against the killer defense, which is likely to stuff the run, force third and long, and put Hendon Hooker and the receivers into situations they’re not good at.
On the other side of the ball, I know Pitt’s numbers aren’t good, but I think the Panthers’ offense has a better chance of having at least some success. I can’t go into a deep dive; I just have a lot of respect for Kenny Pickett when the pocket breaks down, and he’s got some decent receivers.
Pitt and the Hokies have waged some wars over the years, and this series has been a stomach-churner. Add in the fact that Tech is 1-5 in their last six trips to Pittsburgh, with an aggregate score of 213-129, and it doesn’t add up for me. But hey, it’s 2020, so anything can happen and often does.
Will’s Prediction: Pittsburgh 23, Virginia Tech 17
What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Pitt game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (9%, 91 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (35%, 340 Votes)
- Pitt Wins by 1-10 (42%, 410 Votes)
- Pitt Wins by 11+ (14%, 132 Votes)
Total Voters: 973
Last Week’s Virginia Tech-Miami Prediction Poll Results
Game Result: Miami 25, Virginia Tech 24
What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Miami football game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (6%, 55 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (29%, 277 Votes)
- Miami Wins by 1-10 (22%, 208 Votes)
- Miami Wins by 11+ (43%, 407 Votes)
Total Voters: 947