- Virginia Tech vs. Pitt: 3:30, ESPN2
- Virginia Tech vs. Pitt Betting Line: VT +4.5
- Virginia Tech-Pitt roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Blacksburg weather: Click here
- Gameday information: Click Here
Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0) has another home game this Saturday. This one comes against the Pitt Panthers (4-1, 1-0), and though it’s not as big a game to most fans or outsiders as last week’s contest with Notre Dame, it is certainly the more important one when it comes to the Coastal Division race.
Here are the Coastal Division standings as of right now…
Everyone in the division has two or more losses except the Hokies, the Panthers, and Miami, and with starting quarterback D’Eriq King now out for the season, you can likely count the Hurricanes out of the race. As of now, the Coastal Division is a VT-Pitt battle, and the winner on Saturday will be one game up in the loss column and will have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Panthers are 4-1 with a 41-34 win at Tennessee under their belts. However, in true #goacc fashion, they followed that up with a 44-41 home loss to Western Michigan (who got blasted 45-20 by Ball State last week). Considering everything else they’ve done this season, that loss to the Broncos is pretty inexplicable.
It can be summed up by one word: turnovers. The Panthers lost two fumbles that day, while Kenny Pickett threw his only interception of the season, and Western Michigan was able to escape with the win.
Despite that setback, Pitt is building momentum. They’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in the country and one of the nation’s most experienced teams.
The Pitt Offense vs. The Virginia Tech Defense: The Season’s Biggest Challenge For Both Sides
The Pitt offense is No. 6 nationally (516.3 ypg) in total offense against FBS schools, and they are No. 3 in scoring offense (46.3 ppg) against FBS schools. They have one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks in Kenny Pickett (6-3, 220, r-Sr.), and they feature one of the most experienced offenses in all of college football.
But they haven’t exactly faced the best defenses in college football as of yet. Here are the FEI defensive rankings of each team the Panthers have faced, and the number of points Pitt scored in each game:
UMass: No. 130 out of 130, 51 points
Tennessee: No. 63, 41 points
Western Michigan: No. 84, 41 points
Georgia Tech: No. 81, 52 points
Tennessee fields an average defense, Western Michigan and Georgia Tech appear to be well below average, while the UMass defense is arguably the worst in the country. That’s one of the reasons the Pitt offense only ranks No. 44 nationally in FEI offensive efficiency, because the FEI takes the quality of competition into account.
The Virginia Tech defense ranks No. 32 in FEI defensive efficiency, which easily makes them Pitt’s toughest opponent this season. However, the Tech defense will be significantly challenged by the Pitt offense, probably even more than they were challenged by the UNC offense. The Tar Heels were breaking in a large number of new players in the first game of the season. Meanwhile, the Panthers have a large number of veterans who have been playing with each other four years.
Pitt’s starting offense features the following starters in terms of eligibility…
Super Seniors: 3
Redshirt Seniors: 4
Redshirt Juniors: 1
Kenny Pickett is a super senior, as is tight end Lucas Krull (6-6, 260) and wide receiver Taysir Mack (6-2, 190). Four of the five offensive line starters are redshirt seniors, with the fifth being a redshirt junior. And then there’s regular senior Shocky Jacques-Louis (6-0, 190). The Panthers feature three more super seniors in the two-deep, and they have only three freshmen in the two-deep.
This will probably be the most experienced offensive the Hokies face this year. Combine that with a 23-year old future NFL quarterback leading the charge, and it’s easy to see why this Pitt offense has been so potent. Their starters have combined for 14,641 snaps at the college level. Seven of the 11 starters have played 1,200+ snaps, and two have played 2300+ snaps. Barring injury, Pickett will likely pass 3,000 career snaps during Saturday’s game.
In short, this will likely be the greatest challenge of the season for the Virginia Tech defense.
Pittsburgh Quarterback Kenny Pickett
Pickett could have entered the NFL Draft after last season, but chose to return for a fifth year to improve his stock. If the numbers he has put up this year are any indication, that’s exactly what he’s done.
Passing: 121-of-168 (72%), 1,731 yards, 19 TDs, 1 INT
Rushing: 37 carries, 134 yards, 3.6 ypc, 2 TDs
Pickett is a good runner, he’s putting up huge passing numbers, and he is fantastic at keeping plays alive with his feet and then delivering the ball down the field for big gains. He is college football’s version of Aaron Rodgers, and I know those of you who go back a couple of decades probably cringed when you read that.
Pickett is coached by QB coach/OC Mark Whipple, who has been in that role for three seasons at Pitt. Whipple is the former head coach of UMass, where he coached former VT QB Andrew Ford to a solid career (62.6% completion rate, 6,955 yards, 57 TDs, 23 INTs for a guy who lacked arm strength). He has also coached in the NFL with the Steelers, Eagles and Browns.
This article by Dane Brugler of The Athletic is one of the best you’ll ever read, if you are a subscriber to that site. Brugler went over game film of Pickett with Whipple, who had a lot of interesting comments. Whipple has done a great job developing Pickett, just as he seemingly did a great job of developing Andrew Ford at UMass, and he was, at various points, the QB coach for Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb in the NFL.
(Note: it may seem like I’m suggesting a certain thing in the offseason…and yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing.)
Whipple and super senior Pickett have proven to be a formidable combination, especially when you throw in a lot of veteran players around them. While Pickett has played great, he’s also had help.
Pickett has the veterans Shocky Jacques-Louis and Taysir Mack on the outside, as well as slot receiver Jordan Addison (6-0, 175, So.) in the slot.
Though Jacques-Louis and Mack are the veterans, Addison has been most responsible for lighting up opposing defenses this year. He has 29 catches for 524 yards, and he’s already scored nine touchdowns in just five games. He’s averaging 18.1 yards per catch, while Mack has been slightly better at 19 yards per catch.
Outside receiver Jared Wayne (6-3, 210, Jr.) doesn’t start, but he’s third on the team with 15 receptions for 221 yards. Tight end Lucas Krull also gets involved a lot, with 15 catches for 193 yards and five touchdowns. All three of Pitt’s tailbacks appear to be decent threats out of the backfield, and overall, 16 players have caught passes for the Panthers this season.
Pickett uses all of his weapons, and Addison will provide a major challenge in the slot. I think the Virginia Tech cornerbacks will hold up well in general, but Pickett is so good at keeping plays alive with his feet that I worry that while Tech’s initial coverage will be good, it’s going to be difficult to defend everyone after Pickett extends plays.
Veteran Offensive Line
From left to right, here’s how Pitt usually starts out on the offensive line…
LT Carter Warren (6-5, 315, r-Sr.)
LG Marcus Minor (6-4, 325, r-Sr.)
C Owen Drexel (6-3, 310, r-Sr.)
RG Jake Kradel (6-3, 305, r-Jr.)
RT Gabe Houy (6-6, 325, r-Sr.)
That’s a lot of experience. Carter has been the best player, while the guards have been solid. However, Drexel has struggled at center.
Overall, the Panthers have been excellent at pass blocking (No. 2 in the ACC in PFF grades), though they’ve struggled a bit blocking in the running game (No. 12 in the ACC).
Pitt hasn’t established an effective running game with their backs. Three players will get carries for the Panthers…
Israel Abanikanda (5-11, 215, So.): 48 carries, 207 yards, 4.3 ypc
Vincent Davis (5-8, 175, Jr.): 56 carries, 203 yards, 3.6 ypc
Rodney Hammond (5-9, 175, Fr.): 32 carries, 185 yards, 5.8 ypc
AJ Davis Jr. (6-0, 225, Sr.) is listed as a co-starter, but he has not played since the season opener at UMass. True freshman Rodney Hammond had 17 of his 32 carries in a 77-7 rout of FCS New Hampshire, though he’s also been productive against both UMass and Georgia Tech.
The status of Davis is an unknown. If he returns to action against the Hokies, will Pitt use a 4-back rotation or bump one of the other guys in favor of the elder statesman of the group? Davis had a season-high 80 yards on just 12 carries against the Hokies last season.
Overall, the Pitt running game isn’t overly concerning, though they do just enough to balance the offense. Here’s what they’ve done against FBS competition this year…
UMass: 41 carries, 223 yards, 5.4 ypc
Tennessee: 45 carries, 96 yards, 2.1 ypc
WMU: 24 carries, 75 yards, 3.1 ypc
GT: 41 carries, 181 yards, 4.4 ypc
Most of their success came against arguably the worst defense in FBS football that first week against UMass. It’s imperative that the Hokies stop the Pitt running game and put Pickett in long-yardage situations. If he’s working the play action game on second and short, then this game is as good as lost.
The Pitt Defense: Even More Experience
I’m going to list the year of every Pitt player on their two-deep depth chart for this week:
Super seniors: 4
Redshirt seniors: 3
Redshirt juniors: 8
Redshirt sophomores: 4
Redshirt freshmen: NONE
The youngest players on Pitt’s defense are a pair of true sophomores, and neither one of them are starters. There isn’t a single freshman – not even a redshirt freshman – on their two-deep on that side of the ball.
Like their offensive counterparts, this is not a unit that has a ton of future NFL players. However, they are very experienced college players, and that makes them a solid unit at this level. The traditional stats say that Pitt’s defense is mediocre against FBS competition thanks to a poor passing defense…
Rushing: No. 21
Passing: No. 108
Total: No. 57
Scoring: No. 62
However, the advanced metrics paint a brighter picture for the Panthers because they include things like pace of play, quality of the opposition, etc.
FEI: No. 28
ESPN: No. 11
Massey: No. 47
Here’s how Pitt’s opponents rank in FEI offense…
UMass: No. 127
Tennessee: No. 25
Western Michigan: No. 34
Georgia Tech: No. 69
UMass is terrible, but Georgia Tech is decent while Tennessee and Western Michigan are very good. VT sits at No. 55 in the FEI, but is lower in ESPN (No. 77) and the Massey ratings (No. 70).
Here are some names to keep an eye on when watching Pitt’s defense:
DT Calijah Kancey (6-0, 275, r-So.): A Freshman All-American last season, Kancey is Pitt’s highest-grading defender by PFF with a 90.5.
DE Habakkuk Baldonado (6-5, 260, r-Jr.): Baldonado is from Rome, and the Italy native played just one year of high school football in the United States. He leads the team in TFL (5.5) and sacks (3.5)
DT Keyshon Camp (6-4, 290, r-Sr.): Camp starts next to Kancey on the inside, and they form one of the best duos in the ACC.
Linebacker SirVocea Dennis (6-1, 230, Jr.) has played well for the Panthers this year, though a whopping six linebackers have played 100+ snaps for the Panthers in 2021, which indicates their impressive depth at the position. Not a single linebacker in the two-deep is younger than a junior.
The weak link of the Pitt defense is the secondary, though that is as much by design as anything. The Panthers routinely leave their defensive backs on an island against opposing receivers and focus on getting an extra man in the box to shut down the running game. Virginia Tech’s receivers are going to have to win one-on-one battles this week for the Hokies to have a chance. That means they have to get clean releases at the line of scrimmage, and they must be able to beat the Pitt defensive backs in the air for the football. That’s something the Hokies did very well against the Panthers in 2016 with Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges, but it’s something they’ve struggled to do since.
Pittsburgh Special Teams
Placekicker Sam Scarton (6-1, 195, r-So.) is a perfect 4-for-4 on the season with a long of 46 yards. Pitt has blocked a field goal, so the Panthers have come out ahead in the battle of field goals so far this season. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Ben Sauls (5-10, 185) has put 22 of his 46 kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks. However, between Scarton and Sauls, the Panthers have missed four PATs this season (two misses each).
Pitt’s punt coverage team has been exceptional, with opponents only able to return two punts for a total of seven yards. Opponents are also averaging just 18.9 yards per kickoff return against the Panthers, which is a very good number. The good news is that Pitt hasn’t been explosive in the return game in their own right this year.
I feel like this is one of those games where it’s critical that the Hokies hold the special teams advantage at the end of the game.
Virginia Tech-Pittsburgh Final Thoughts
Over the years, I’ve developed a healthy respect for the way Pat Narduzzi has run Pitt’s program. Evaluations, retention, and development. Those are the three keys to winning at Pitt. The Panthers were even able to retain guys like super senior linebacker Chase Pine, a former starter from Virginia who has since been demoted to a backup role.
Pitt has a ton of juniors and seniors on their roster, and almost everybody redshirts. They always have players who fill out their uniforms and who appear to get the most out of the weight room. Player development is very strong. It seems like this happens every year at Pitt. Think back to 2018 when the Hokies took a bunch of freshmen and sophomores (17 of Tech’s 22 players in the two-deep) to Heinz Field, and they faced a Panther team laden with experienced seniors. Pitt blew Tech out, 52-22.
This is the type of program I envision for Virginia Tech, except the Hokies should have access to a bit more talent than Pitt. I think Tech could win a lot of games with that model. But I digress. That’s not what this section was supposed to turn into.
I think the Virginia Tech defense will be the stiffest competition Kenny Pickett has faced this season, and I think the Hokies will do better than his other opponents. But doing a “better” job against Pickett than all of Pitt’s opponents this year will mean what? 31 points? 34 points? 28? Considering Pitt hasn’t scored fewer than 41 points this year, that wouldn’t be a bad performance. I definitely expect Justin Fuente to employ the old “shorten the game” tactic this weekend.
But what do you think the Tech offense is going to do with a 4-back rotation and a one-armed quarterback? Here’s the amount of points scored by the Hokies this year…
Notre Dame: 29
And I didn’t even take out the defensive touchdown against Notre Dame or the special teams touchdown against Richmond. Assuming Tech doesn’t score a defensive or special teams touchdown this week, how in the world can anyone expect the Hokies to keep up with Pitt over four quarters of football? I just can’t see it.
I’m not making this pick based on the Notre Dame game. Those of you who watch or listen to the TSL Podcast saw/heard me say, “I’m picking Virginia Tech to beat Notre Dame, but I’m picking them to lose to Pitt” at some point before that game with the Irish. And I didn’t say that because I thought the Hokies would play to the level of their competition. I said that because I believe Pitt is a worse matchup for Tech than Notre Dame. This game has looked like a tough one to me for a couple of weeks now. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on the rest of the season, but I can’t with good conscience pick Tech this week.
The good news, I suppose, is that I’m 0-3 in Tech’s big games this year, so there’s that. But I thought all three of those games (UNC, WVU and ND) were basically pick’ems. I don’t view this game as a pick’em. I view Pitt as the clear favorite.
Chris’s Prediction: Pitt 31, Virginia Tech 20
David Cunningham’s Take: I feel like I have a lot to live up to after my prediction for the Notre Dame was about 85% accurate. I didn’t feel confident at all about the Hokies’ ability to close out the game, which I was right about. I thought Tech would get a defensive score, which they did, and I ultimately thought it would come down to an Irish field goal… which it did.
I feel even less confident about the Hokies’ chances this week. I don’t think it’s going to be very close. Braxton Burmeister still found a way to get into the end zone last week even though he was banged up, so I think the Hokies will put some points up on the board. But I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere close to enough.
Kenny Pickett is the real deal. I think the Hokies will be able to slow him down, like Chris mentioned. He’s not a huge running threat, but never count him out. Tech didn’t seem to be able to get pressure on Notre Dame’s offensive line, and without Dax Hollifield at linebacker, I can’t see Justin Hamilton’s unit being better than it was last week against ND in terms of pass rush.
As for Tech’s offense… I’m not convinced that Tech will use the running backs properly and the wide receivers will get open. I think the offensive line was better in pass protection last week, but the Hokies still couldn’t really run the ball (with backs not named Raheem Blackshear). I think Tech will score twice, but I expect this to be a three-score game by halftime.
I’m not sure how respectable this one might be, but I think it’ll be about 20 points. Tech’s defense won’t completely cave like we’ve seen against Pitt (particularly in Pittsburgh) in the past, but having to run back on the field multiple times less than two minutes later because the offense went three-and-out won’t be helpful in terms of keeping the defense fresh.
I’m keeping my eye out to see how the Hokies respond if the game gets out of hand. In the past, we’ve seen Tech teams falter and let the opponent run all over them at times. That’s a bad sign if it happens in year six. Tech hasn’t done that yet this year when they’ve faced a lot of adversity, so I don’t expect it to happen, but it’s something to look out for.
Also, shoutout to John Parker Romo against Notre Dame. I’m not going to reverse jinx him and say he’s going to be 100% and make multiple kicks against Pitt because that isn’t very productive. Clearly, me saying I didn’t believe in Tech’s kicking game made him turn it on. He hit all three attempts, including a 52-yard field goal, and I think a lot of people can feel better about the kicking game after that performance. I say he gets at least one on Saturday.
David’s Prediction: Pitt 41, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: The breakdown provided by Chris paints a very gloomy picture. Let’s flip things over and look at the other side and ask ourselves: How good is Pitt, really?
The analytics, numbers, statistics and experience say “very good.” But they lost to Western Michigan. Like UNC in the first game of the season, Pittsburgh will have the best quarterback on the field Saturday, by a long shot. But UNC lost to Virginia Tech.
With one of the top QBs in the country and a roster loaded with experience, Pittsburgh appears to be building towards an ACC title run, given that Clemson is looking so shaky this year. But even the best Pittsburgh teams of the last ten-plus years haven’t won more than eight games, and the Panthers haven’t had a ten-win season since 2009 (10-3). The Coastal Division champion Panther team of 2018 finished the season 7-7. From 2017-2020, Pittsburgh went just 26-24.
Since 2001, Virginia Tech is 4-8 against Pittsburgh, and some of the losses have been horrendous beatdowns:
- 2001: Pitt 38, VT 7
- 2012: Pitt 35, VT 17
- 2018: Pitt 52, VT 22
- 2020: Pitt 47, VT 14
Those games, of course, have one thing in common. They were all played in Pittsburgh. The Panthers are not in the habit of beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where they are 1-3 since 2013.
We’re used to Pittsburgh being a tough out for Virginia Tech, but it’s not like they have been a juggernaut at any point in the last 40 years, since going 11-1 in 1981 and winning the Sugar Bowl with Dan Marino as their quarterback.
Almost none of that is relevant to this game, however, and though Kenny Pickett is a fine quarterback who is having a great year so far, it’s not Pittsburgh I’m worried about. It’s Virginia Tech, or more specifically, how the Hokies match up in this game. Pitt is a bad matchup, a team that loads the box to stop the run and challenges you one-on-one in coverage. Virginia Tech was able to beat that in 2016, but this 2021 version is not a team built to have success against that kind of defense, especially with Braxton Burmeister not being a hundred percent.
In four trips to Blacksburg in ACC play, Pittsburgh has managed just 40 total points, ten points per game. I don’t think they’ll struggle like that on offense this time around, but I think the Hokies will. Beating the Panthers after a gut-wrenching loss to Notre Dame would be a perfectly Justin Fuente thing to do, but I don’t think that will happen.
Will’s Prediction: Pittsburgh 38, Virginia Tech 17
What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-Pittsburgh game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (4%, 54 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (19%, 261 Votes)
- Pitt Wins by 1-10 (14%, 189 Votes)
- Pitt Wins by 11+ (64%, 887 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,391
Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Notre Dame Prediction Poll Results
Game Result: No. 14 Notre Dame 32, Virginia Tech 29
What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-Notre Dame game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (10%, 141 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (48%, 666 Votes)
- Notre Dame Wins by 1-10 (31%, 427 Votes)
- Notre Dame Wins by 11+ (11%, 159 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,393
|Hokies Win by 1-10||Hokies 17, UNC 10|
|Hokies Win by 11+||Hokies 35, MTSU 14|
|Hokies Win by 1-10||WVU 27, Hokies 21|
|Hokies Win by 11+||Hokies 21, Richmond 10|
|Hokies Win by 1-10||Notre Dame 32, Hokies 29|
|Pittsburgh Wins by 11+||Pittsburgh 28, Hokies 7|