- Virginia Tech-Pitt rostercard: Click here
- Gamenotes from Hokiesports: Click here
- For Pitt links, see our Links page
- Blacksburg Weather: Click here
All that stands in the way of Virginia Tech and a 3-0 start to ACC play are the Pitt Panthers. The same Pitt Panthers who crushed the Hokies last season, and who are 3-1 so far this year.
It wasn’t a pleasant trip to Pittsburgh last September. Tech got run over by the Panthers and the game was never close. Fortunately, Pitt tailbacks Ray Graham and Rushel Shell are both gone, and the Pitt offensive line has struggled somewhat to begin the season.
If the Hokies win this game, they’ll hand Pitt their second ACC loss and knock them out of the Coastal Division race. That would leave the Coastal to either Virginia Tech or Miami, and it would likely be settled in a November showdown in south Florida.
The Offensive Line and the Running Game
Pitt’s offensive line bludgeoned the Hokies at the point of attack last season. Here’s what Tech will be facing this year.
LT Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 300, r-Fr.): Bisnowaty is a young player who has struggled at times this year. He has a lot of potential, and he was one of the highest recruited offensive linemen in the country coming out of high school. Tech’s experienced defensive ends could present a problem for him.
LG Cory King (6-6, 325, r-Sr.): King started all 13 games at left tackle last season, but he’s moved back to his natural position of guard this season. He has started 22 games in his career.
C Artie Rowell (6-2, 305, r-So.): Rowell played in just two games last season before taking over the starting duties this year. He’s still a young and developing player, and he’ll have his hands full on the inside with Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy.
RG Matt Rotheram (6-6, 340, r-Jr.): Rotheram started at right tackle last season, but he moved inside for the 2013 season. He’s an experienced player who started against the Hokies last season.
RT T.J. Clemmings (6-6, 305, r-Jr.): Clemmings played defensive end last season, and never got any reps as an offensive lineman until bowl preparations last season. The Virginia Tech defensive ends will be his greatest challenge to date.
I like the matchup of Tech’s defensive line against Pitt’s offensive line. The Panthers return two starters up front, but both guys are starting at different positions this season. With the left tackle being a freshman, and the right tackle being a converted defensive end, I really think this bodes well for the VT defense.
Since Pitt’s tight ends are mostly blockers, we’ll include them in the offensive line section as well.
TE J.P. Holtz (6-4, 245, So.): Holtz has just two catches for 18 yards on the season. He started 10 games as a true freshman last season. He’s a pure blocking specialist for the Panthers.
TE Manasseh Garner (6-2, 230, r-Jr.): Garner has five catches for 50 yards, and he is perhaps Pitt’s best receiving threat after their two excellent wide receivers. He’s a transfer from Wisconsin who has also seen time at wide receiver and defensive end.
The Pitt tailbacks have put up great numbers against two very bad defenses. Against Florida State and UVA, they didn’t have nearly as much success.
Isaac Bennett (5-11, 205, Jr.): Bennett is technically the starter, though he doesn’t get as much work as his backup. He has 40 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Against New Mexico, he carried the ball 14 times for 101 yards and accounted for both of his touchdowns. His other 26 carries have netted just 84 yards.
James Conner (6-2, 230, Fr.): Conner is a true freshman who was recruited as a defensive end, but he was converted to tailback in August. He has 62 carries for 353 yards and four touchdowns on the season. His game-by-game numbers look like this:
Florida State: 9 carries, 34 yards, 3.8 ypc
New Mexico: 12 carries, 119 yards, 9.9 ypc, 2 TDs
Duke: 26 carries, 173 yards, 6.7 ypc, 1 TD
UVA: 15 carries, 27 yards, 1.8 ypc, 1 TD
Despite the fact that they were lit up like the Fourth of July by the Ball State offense, UVA managed to abuse the Pitt offensive line. The Hoos held the Panthers to eight total rushing yards and sacked quarterback Tom Savage seven times.
New Mexico ranks #109 in total defense, while Duke is #64. Florida State is #7, and UVA is #28. It’s pretty simple … against good defense teams, Pitt has not been able to run the football. Against bad defensive teams, they’ve been able to get a running game going.
Tom Savage and the Pitt Passing Game
I remember watching Tom Savage (6-5, 230, r-Sr.) start for Rutgers as a true freshman, and I thought he was going to be a very good quarterback for the Scarlet Knights. He was a Freshman All-American back in 2009, but then he transferred to Arizona, where he didn’t play. Then he transferred to Pitt, and after sitting out all of last season, he’s finally back on the field.
Savage has a very live arm, and he’s completed 64-of-109 (58.7%) for 1,052 yards, with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season. He can complete passes down the field and stretch a defense vertically. However, Savage doesn’t have much mobility in the pocket. When he gets in trouble, there’s a very low chance that he’ll escape. He has -94 rushing yards on the season, which is about as bad as it gets for a quarterback.
It’s important to note that Savage threw six touchdown passes against Duke, and only four against Florida State, New Mexico and UVA. If you throw out the Duke game, he has four touchdown passes and six interceptions on the season.
Only five players have caught more than two passes for Pitt:
WR Tyler Boyd (6-2, 185, Fr.): 23 catches, 485 yards, 18.5 ypc, 4 TD
WR Devin Street (6-4, 195, r-Sr.): 21 catches, 445 yards, 21.2 ypc, 3 TD
WR Kevin Weatherspoon (5-10, 175, r-Jr.): 5 catches, 63 yards, 12.6 ypc
TE Manasseh Garner (6-2, 230, r-Jr.): 5 catches, 50 yards, 10 ypc
RB Isaac Bennett (5-11, 205, Jr.): 4 catches, 13 yards, 3.2 ypc
Obviously the Panthers don’t have very many threats outside of Boyd and Street. Weatherspoon is the #3 wide receiver, and he’s a guy who only played in seven games over the course of his first two seasons at Pitt. There is simply a lack of talent at that position.
Even though they don’t have much after Boyd and Street, those two guys are outstanding football players.
Devin Street: He caught 53 passes two years ago, and 73 last season. He’s a big target who can run. Street was a 2-star recruit who picked Pitt over MAC offers, so he’s come a long way. He is expected to be a mid-round NFL Draft selection.
Tyler Boyd: Boyd is a dynamic true freshman who chose hometown Pitt over a ton of other offers (including Virginia Tech; the Hokies recruited him heavily). He was the #103 player in the country coming out of high school. Not only is Boyd a good receiver, but he has 98 rushing yards on seven carries, and he’s Pitt’s top kick returner. He’s a big time freshman with speed who would get a lot more coverage if he played for a team with a bigger name.
Both of those guys are very good, and both are future NFL Draft picks. Fortunately the Hokies have an outstanding secondary to use against them. If Tech can shut down the Pitt running game and put the Panthers in obvious passing situations, they can neutralize the talent of Street and Boyd.
The Return of the Whip?
Pitt’s depth chart lists two tight ends as starters, and as noted above, the Panthers don’t come at you with a plethora of wide receivers. Instead, they line up in power formations with two wide receivers and run the football, as well as work playaction and throw it down the field.
Josh Trimble (6-0, 216, r-So.) played a lot at whip against Alabama, because the Tide have similar offensive philosophies as Pitt. They line up in power formations and look to establish the run. Trimble hasn’t seen much playing time since then, because the Hokies have faced a bunch of spread offenses that like to use three and four wide receivers at once.
Does that mean that the Hokies will use the traditional whip linebacker this weekend? Or will the Hokies continue to use Kendall Fuller at the whip/nickel spot? That’s something to watch for on Pitt’s first offensive possession.
The Pitt Defense: Still a Mystery to Me
The Pitt defense has been up and down, and through their first four games, I’m still not sure how good they are. Here are their numbers for each game:
FSU: 156 rushing, 377 passing, 533 total
New Mexico: 213 rushing, 57 passing, 270 total
Duke: 213 rushing, 319 passing, 532 total
UVA: 65 rushing, 123 passing, 188 total
Pitt shut down an awful UVA offense last week, and they had a solid total yardage number against New Mexico. However, they struggled to stop the run against Florida State, New Mexico and Duke. Then again, Florida State, New Mexico and Duke probably all have better running games than Virginia Tech right now, so I’m not sure that means anything. UNC was getting gashed on the ground heading into their matchup with the Hokies, and that turned out to mean nothing.
Pitt has a defensive tackle named Aaron Donald (6-0, 285, Sr.) who is potentially the worst matchup of the season for the Virginia Tech offensive line. Through four games, he has nine TFL, six sacks, five QB hurries and a forced fumble. He can dominate an offensive line, and Pitt lined him up at different spots against UVA to keep the Hoos confused.
NFLDraftScout.com rates Donald as the #6 defensive tackle in the country. Because of his height (or lack thereof) he plays with great leverage, and he’s able to easily get under the pads of opposing offensive linemen. The Hokie interior linemen are going to have their work cut out for them on Saturday, as they are facing one of the biggest playmakers in the country.
The rest of Pitt’s defensive line lacks Donald’s playmaking ability.
DE David Durham (6-1, 255, r-Jr.): Transfer from Ohio State. 0 TFL, 0 sacks
DE Shakir Soto (6-3, 255, Fr.): 2 TFL
DE Ejuan Price (6-0, 230, r-So.): 2 TFL
DE Bryan Murphy (6-3, 255, r-Jr.): 2 TFL, 1 sack
DT Tyrone Ezell (6-4, 305, r-Sr.): 0 TFL, 0 sacks
Ezell is a big body who lines up next to Donald on the inside. They are a formidable duo, and I think the Hokies are better suited to run outside in this game.
Pitt has a solid if unspectacular group of linebackers. All three players have experience.
MLB Shane Gordon (6-1, 230, r-Sr.): Gordon starts in the middle for Pitt, and he also started eight games at that position last season. He’s an experienced player, but he’s never been a playmaker.
SLB Anthony Gonzalez (6-3, 225, r-Jr.): Gonzalez is a former safety who has 28 tackles and an interception this season. As a freshman in 2011, he was an H-back and a Wildcat QB.
WLB Todd Thomas (6-2, 230, r-Jr.): Thomas has three tackles for loss on the season. He is probably the most athletic of the Pitt linebackers.
I can’t give those guys a better grade than “solid.” If they were better than that, they wouldn’t have allowed so many rushing yards to New Mexico and Duke, particularly with Aaron Donald in front of them.
Here’s a look at Pitt’s secondary:
CB Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 195, r-So.): Pitts is a good player who started all 13 games as a r-freshman last season.
CB K’Waun Williams (5-10, 195, Sr.): Williams had four interceptions and 2.5 TFL last season. He is in his third season as a starter.
FS Ray Vinopal (5-10, 200, r-Jr.): Vinopal started at safety for Michigan as a true freshman before transferring to Pitt. However, he didn’t start for the Panthers last season. He is third on the team in tackles with 25.
SS Jason Hendricks (6-0, 190, r-Sr.): Hendricks has been in the starting lineup since he was a freshman. He was a Second Team All-Big East player last season. He leads the team with 30 tackles this year, including two TFL and an interception.
That’s an experienced secondary. I don’t think they are as talented as the UNC secondary, but I think they are more focused, and they work better as a unit than the Tar Heels.
I think the Pitt defense is attackable in the secondary and on the edges, but I don’t see Tech having a lot of success up the middle against the Panthers.
Pitt starts a true freshman at kicker. Chris Blewitt (5-9, 170, Fr.) is 3-for-5 on the season, with a long of 39 yards. One of those misses was blocked. I would say that he’s still a question mark at this stage of his career, particularly in Lane Stadium. Also, I feel bad for this kid because of his last name … that’s setting up for a disaster if/when he ever misses a potential game-winning kick!
Matt Yoklic (6-4, 220, r-Sr.) handles the punting duties. He is averaging 45.5 yards per punt, and he’s in his third season as Pitt’s starter.
Pitt’s return game hasn’t scared anyone to this point. Lafayette Pitts (16.2 ypr) and Tyler Boyd (22.2 ypr) handle the kickoff duties, and though Boyd is capable of breaking one at any point, he has yet to do so. Kevin Weatherspoon has averaged just two yards per return on his three punt returns.
I feel like this is a game where the Hokies have the advantage on special teams, as long as they can avoid a critical error.
Notice that I never mentioned that Pitt has a four game winning streak in this series. Those 2001-03 games won’t mean anything when the two teams meet this Saturday, just like the 1937 VT-Tennessee game won’t mean diddly when the Hokies and Vols meet in Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016. I can’t think of anything more irrelevant to this matchup than those 2001-03 games. All those players are gone, and most of the coaches are gone as well.
It’s becoming perfectly clear that perhaps the #1 key for this Virginia Tech team is turnover margin. The Hokies haven’t committed a single turnover in their past two games, and they hold a 6-0 advantage in the turnover margin in those two games, and they only won those two games by a combined 17 points. If the turnover margin had been even in those games, the Hokies could have lost both of them, and we’d all be in a pretty bad mood right now.
Instead, the passing game has been heating up and Logan Thomas has been playing like the seasoned veteran he is. Though the running game has yet to get going, the young backs haven’t fumbled this year (knock on wood), and that’s very important. Despite the fact that we’re sitting at 5-1 and 2-0 in the ACC, the margin for error is razor thin. If the Hokies lose the turnover battle against Pitt, they will probably lose the football game. If they win the turnover battle, they will probably win the game. It’s that simple.
I don’t believe Pitt has the horses to run the football consistently against the Tech defense. That means they’ll be a one-dimensional offense, which means they aren’t going to score a lot of points. This one will come down to Logan Thomas and turnover margin. I like the way things have been trending lately, so it’s tough to pick against the Hokies in this one.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Pitt 10
Will Stewart’s Take: Haha, you want me to pick a score? That’s funny. Here’s my track record with the last four Pitt games (all of them VT losses). I’ll include a quote from the game preview in each case.
2001: #12 Virginia Tech @ unranked Pittsburgh
Quotable: Expect Pittsburgh to launch an aerial assault on offense and to send in the troops on defense. How well the Hokies weather both attacks (sorry for the war metaphors) will determine if Tech comes out of Heinz Field with a W or a program-shaking, message-board melting L.
- My Prediction: VT 27, Pitt 17
- Result: Pittsburgh 38, VT 7
2002: #3 Virginia Tech vs. unranked Pittsburgh
Quotable (by Jeff Ouellet): Because competing with Miami isn’t realistic on an annual basis at this point for Pitt, [head coach Walt] Harris has zeroed in on VT as his measuring stick and he probably prepares more for this game than any other game on the schedule.
- Jeff’s Prediction: VT 16, Pitt 10
- Result: Pitt 28, VT 21
2003: #5 Virginia Tech @ #25 Pittsburgh
Quotable: If the Hokies can stifle the running game and put [Pitt QB Rod] Rutherford on his butt just a few times here and there, they should be able to hold Pittsburgh under 30.
- My Prediction: VT 24, Pitt 20
- Result: Pitt 31, VT 28
2012: #13 Virginia Tech @ unranked Pittsburgh
Quotable: Virginia Tech is a good road team. Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the Hokies have a nation’s-best 13-game winning streak in true road games (non-neutral venues). Not to be arrogant about it, but the Hokies should win this one easily,
- My Prediction: VT 31, Pitt 10
- Result: Pitt 35, VT 17
2013: #24 Virginia Tech vs. unranked Pittsburgh
I’m not going to go on and on about this one, because it just gets me into trouble.
Throw out everything Pittsburgh has done this season. I expect a tough game, and in particular, I think Aaron Donald is going to make things hard on Virginia Tech’s offense, all by himself. (Having said that, I think Scot Loeffler knows this, and will go away from Donald, as much as you can go away from a defensive tackle.)
I think Logan Thomas will continue to play well. Will he keep hitting 70% of his passes, with multiple TDs and no picks? Not likely, just because that’s a hard pace to keep up, but I think he’ll do well. I think the Hokie running game will continue to flounder.
Defensively, I think VT’s run-stopping ways will continue, but I’ve thought that in the past, only to see Pittsburgh gash the Hokies on the ground. The Panthers have averaged 205 yards rushing per game in their four-game win streak over Tech.
Heck the more I type, the more I think it’s just time to randomly pick a score. I do think Tech will win, because the idea of Pitt having a five-game win streak over Frank Beamer’s Hokies is hard to imagine. But other than that, I feel like I’m throwing darts at a wall.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Pittsburgh 14