Hokies hope to snap Steel City losing streak

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  • Date/Time: Thursday, October 16, 2014, 7:30
  • TV: ESPN
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  • Pitt favored by 2

Virginia Tech faces Pitt in a huge Coastal Division showdown on Thursday night in Heinz Field. The Hokies find themselves right back in the thick of things, thanks to Georgia Tech’s loss to Duke, and now they have to keep up their own end of the bargain by going on the road and knocking off Pitt.

Tech has not beaten Pitt on the road since 1999. In 2001, a 2-5 Pitt team blasted the Hokies 38-7. In 2012, an 0-2 Pitt team that had lost to Youngstown State defeated Tech 35-17 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. As you can see, using performances in the weeks leading up to previous VT-Pitt games has not necessarily been the best way to pick games. After starting off this season 3-0, the Panthers have dropped three in a row to Iowa, Akron and UVA. As 2001 and 2012 taught us, that means absolutely nothing.

That said, past performances at Heinz Field are not necessarily how Thursday’s game is going to go, either. The Hokies are not cursed in that stadium. There is nothing special about it. It’s half filled for Pitt games, and it’s not an imposing homefield advantage. If Tech can win in the Horseshoe, they can win at Pitt. It has nothing to do with the stadium. This one will come down to matchups and execution, like most games.

Let’s take a closer look.

OXVT’s Tale of the Tape

We begin with the Tale of the Tape from TSL infographics specialist OXVT (follow him on Twitter at @OX_VT).

Click for a larger version.


Pitt Rushing Offense

Rank: #20 (243.83 ypg)

The strength of Pitt’s offense is their running game. Here is a look at their game-by-game results, with their opponent’s ranking in parentheses…

Delaware: 409 yards (1-AA)
Boston College: 303 (#9)
FIU: 321 (#53)
Iowa: 185 (#40)
Akron: 129 (#47)
UVA: 116 (#6)

Things started out well for Pitt. They ran all over a very strong Boston College rushing defense. However, during their recent three-game slide, their rushing attack has been trending down. Akron and UVA shut them down completely and held the Panthers to under four yards per carry. I think that as the season has gone on, more film has gotten out on Pitt’s offense, and opposing teams are seeing that their passing game isn’t a threat.

That being said, the size of this Pitt offense is impressive, and they will be going up against a small Tech front seven. Let’s compare the size of Pitt’s offensive line, tight end, H-back and tailback, and compare it to the size of Tech’s front seven.

LT Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 305, r-So.)
LG Dorian Johnson (6-5, 300, So.)
C Alex Officer (6-4, 335, r-Fr.)
RG Matt Rotheram (6-6,335, r-Sr.)
RT T.J. Clemmings (6-6, 315, r-Sr.)
TE J.P. Holtz (6-4, 245, Jr.)
H-back Jaymar Parris (6-2, 270, So.)
RB James Conner (6-2, 250, So.)

That’s an average of 294.37 pounds per man. Compare that to Tech’s front seven:

DE Dadi Nicolas (6-4, 231, r-Jr.)
DT Corey Marshall (6-2, 262, r-Jr.)
DT Nigel Williams (6-2, 291, r-So.)
DE Ken Ekanem (6-3, 249, r-So.)
LB Chase Williams (6-2, 215, r-Sr.)
LB Deon Clarke (6-2, 213, Jr.)
OLB Derek DiNardo (6-0, 210, r-Sr.)

That’s an average of 238.7 pounds per man. Pitt’s running back outweighs five of those seven Tech players. The biggest Hokie in the front seven, Nigel Williams, is smaller than the average weight of all those Pitt players.

Of course, Tech was smaller than Pitt last year as well. They still managed to hold the Panthers to 23 yards on the ground. They knocked James Conner out of the game early and then sacked Tom Savage eight times. Still, last year’s VT defense was much bigger than this one, and we can’t count on James Conner getting hurt again.

The Tech defense definitely has the edge in terms of speed and quickness. They have the ability to make plays behind the line and get after the quarterback. If I were Pitt, I’d play this one very conservatively and run the ball a ton.

Pitt Passing Offense

Rank: #116 (161.5 ypg)

Pitt’s passing offense hasn’t been particularly good. They have one major weapon on the outside in Tyler Boyd, and they are breaking in a new quarterback, Chad Voytik (6-1, 205, r-So.). Voytik is much more mobile than Tom Savage of a year ago, and he’s actually second on the team in rushing with 169 yards. Pitt will roll the pocket with him and try to take advantage of his legs. However, at this stage he isn’t as good a passer as Savage, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Texans.

For the season, Voytik is 84-of-143 (58.7%) with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Here is how their passing game has gone each game:

Delaware: 92 (1-AA)
Boston College: 111 (#18)
FIU: 101 (#15)
Iowa: 250 (#24)
Akron: 220 (#63)
UVA: 195 (#72

Overall, Pitt has faced some good pass defenses, though Tech’s secondary will be their greatest challenge. However, the thing to watch for isn’t how many yards Pitt throws for. Their number of passing attempts will be a sign of how the game is going.

Avg. attempts in three wins: 17.67
Avg. attempts in three losses: 31.33

Pitt is throwing the ball nearly 14 times per game more in their three losses, and that’s not in their comfort zone. Obviously the Hokies want to take an early lead on offense, get the Panthers behind the chains on defense, and force them into a situation where they have to throw the ball a lot. If that happens, then Virginia Tech will win the game, barring something fluky.

Pitt’s top option in the passing game is Tyler Boyd (6-2, 190, So.). Boyd was once a Virginia Tech recruiting target, and he had a huge season a year ago as a freshman. So far in 2014, he has 30 catches for 428 yards and four touchdowns. If the Tech secondary can stop Boyd, it will be very difficult for the Panthers to generate much yardage through the air.

Pitt Rushing Defense

Rank: #37 (126.5 ypg)

Here is how the Pitt rushing defense has fared on a game-by-game basis. Their opponent’s ranking in rushing offense is noted in parentheses.

Delaware: 33 (1-AA)
Boston College: 142 (#5)
FIU: 57 (#114)
Iowa: 133 (#83)
Akron: 169 (#105)
UVA: 225 (#56)

Pitt started off very strong when it comes to stopping the run. The Panthers shut down Delaware and FIU, which isn’t a major accomplishment. However, they held Boston College to just 142 yards on the ground, and the Eagles are #5 in the country in rushing offense.

However, things have started to go downhill over the last several weeks. Iowa and Akron, neither of which are strong running teams, got something going on the ground against the Panthers. Then UVA, who is middle of the pack in rushing average, went off for 225 yards.

Pitt has been trending in the wrong direction here, but they have a very good matchup this week. The Hokies will be missing their top three tailbacks, their offensive line is highly questionable, and the best blocking tight end (Ryan Malleck) hasn’t been 100% since the first quarter of the East Carolina game. Even though the Panthers’ run defense has been slipping, they’ll likely get back on track this week.

Though they are lacking in athleticism when compared to many other teams on Tech’s schedule, this Pitt front seven is physically strong and they are gap sound. They are also pretty experienced.

DE David Durham (6-2, 240, r-Sr.)
DT Darryl Render (6-2, 275, Jr.)
DT Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6-0, 310, r-Jr.)
DE Shakir Soto (6-3, 270, So.)
WLB Todd Thomas (6-2, 230, r-Sr.)
MLB Matt Galambos (6-2, 245, So.)
SLB Anthony Gonzalez (6-3, 230, r-Sr.)

The Panthers have pretty good size up front, along with three seniors and two juniors. As I said, they are gap sound, but they lack the overall athleticism to make a lot of plays in the backfield…

Sacks per game: 2 per game, #65 nationally
TFL per game: 4.33 per game, #115 nationally

Because Pitt doesn’t make it a habit to play in the backfield, this should be a week where the Hokies do not find themselves behind the chains very often. However, Tech struggled to block a very bad UNC defense, and they still haven’t solved their penalty problems. If I played in Pitt’s front seven, I would see Thursday night’s game as an opportunity for a coming out party.

Pitt Pass Defense

Rank: #6 (152.2 ypg)

Pitt has done a very nice job against the pass this season…

Delaware: 31 (1-AA)
Boston College: 134 (#123)
FIU: 236 (#111)
Iowa: 178 (#72)
Akron: 213 (#40)
UVA: 121 (#81)

Holding your opponent to just 152.2 yards per game through the air is very impressive. However, it’s worth nothing that only one of those opponents is ranked better than #72 in passing offense. In fact, Boston College and Florida International are amongst the worst passing offenses in the country.

Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 195, r-Jr.) has been starting since his r-freshman season. He is a Pittsburgh native and one of the most experienced cornerbacks in the ACC. He is joined in the secondary by cornerback Reggie Mitchell (6-0, 195, r-So.), a transfer from Wisconsin who is originally from Pennsylvania.

The starting safeties are Ray Vinopal (5-10, 200, r-Sr.) and Terrish Webb (5-11, 180, So.). Vinopal starts at free safety, and he was an Honorable Mention All-ACC player a year ago. Webb is the strong safety, and overall he is the least experienced member of the Pitt secondary.

Though their overall numbers for the season are very good, I still feel better about Tech’s chances of beating the Pitt secondary than I do about their chances of establishing a successful running game against the Panther front seven. Still, it’s tough to ask a passing game that relies on so many freshmen to completely shoulder the load.

Running game margin has been steadily dropping

Pitt needs to run the ball and stop the run to be successful. Their margin of running yards gained vs. running yards allowed has been dropping in recent weeks, so it’s easy to see why they are 0-3 in that span.

Delaware: +368
Boston College: +161
FIU: +270
Iowa: +52
Akron: -40
UVA: -109

Beginning with the Iowa game, Pitt’s running margin has been dropping steadily. I’m guessing it bottomed out against UVA last week, but the point remains the same: the Panthers have been getting worse in the running game on both sides of the ball.

As I said before, I don’t anticipate the Hokies doing much on the ground this week with their top three running backs out. Nevertheless, if the VT defense can stop the Pitt running attack, the Hokies can still win the battle of the running games.

Statistical Similarities

Virginia Tech and Pitt are very similar in several statistics that we’ve been covering this year.

Third down defense: VT #2 (24.1%), Pitt #15 (30.38%)

40+ yard plays allowed: VT #T-83, Pitt #T-83

40+ yard plays: Pitt #98, VT #120

Penalties per game: Pitt #81, VT #119

Both defenses are dominant on third down, though both have shown a tendency to give up big plays. However, both offenses have been very bad at hitting big plays, while both teams commit way too many penalties (especially VT).

Let’s assume for a second that both teams continue their trend of not hitting big plays, both teams continue their trend of playing great third down defense, and both teams continue their trend of committing a lot of penalties. If that turns out to be the case, this has the potential to be an ugly football game without much offense on either side.


Final Thoughts

This game worried me from the start of the season. Although Pitt has disappointed the last few weeks, this is a pretty even matchup on paper. Take off your orange and maroon glasses for a second and tell me: would pick a team to win who had lost their top three tailbacks, three of their top three receivers were freshmen, their best defensive tackle was out, they were outweighed up front by nearly 60 pounds per man, and their quarterback has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns? If you were watching some generic SEC game in which you had no rooting interest, would you pick the team with all those issues listed above? I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, that team is the Hokies. Shai McKenzie, Trey Edmunds and Marshawn Williams are out. Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips are all freshmen, and they are three of the top four receivers. Luther Maddy will miss this game. The Pitt offense has a huge size advantage over the Tech defense. Michael Brewer, as noted numerous times, has had trouble with interceptions. Oh, and Tech hasn’t won at Pitt since 1999.

On the other hand, this is a road game. The Hokies have played much better on the road dating back to last season. This year they have a 17 point win at UNC, a 14 point win at Ohio State, and last season they ended the year by smashing Miami 42-24 on the road and defeating UVA by ten in Charlottesville. But at home, they lose to ECU, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. From that standpoint, I’m glad this game is in Pittsburgh.

No matter who wins, I think this game is going to be pretty ugly. When we look back in the 2014 season, good or bad, my guess is that we’ll be able to say that the Pitt game was the ugliest of the year. I don’t expect a pretty football game on Thursday night. Pitt can’t throw it, Tech can’t run it, both teams commit penalties, neither team hits big plays, the Hokies are banged up, etc. It doesn’t sound as if it’s going to be very entertaining, unless of course you have a rooting interest as we all do.

I really don’t care if it’s ugly, as long as the Hokies win. An ugly win is always better than a pretty loss. All that said, taking my blinders off, it’s really tough for me to pick Tech to win without their top three tailbacks. When you think about what that means, think of it in these terms: who would have been Tech’s tailback in 1999 had Shyrone Stith, Andre Kendrick and Lee Suggs had gotten hurt? I honestly have no idea. 15 years from now, we might be asking “who was Tech’s fourth string running back in 2014?” The answer could very well be “I have no idea.”

I’m hoping for a win, but with all the issues this team has right now, I’m picking a loss.

Chris’ Prediction: Pitt 20, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: Weekly question I get asked: “What do you think will happen in this game?” Weekly answer: “I have no idea.”

Still true. Throw out previous results and stats so far this year. This one’s up for grabs.

Having said that, something tells me the Hokies are going to play with a sense of urgency Thursday night. Every Coastal Division matchup is a do-or-die affair, thanks to Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech, and the Hokies know they can’t give away another game if they want to return to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2011.

So I don’t think you’ll see the Hokies get drilled at Heinz Field like they did in 2001 and 2012.

What I do think you’ll see is an all-out effort to stop the run. I’m not really worried about Virginia Tech’s lack of size on defense. I think they’ll crowd the box and shoot the gaps to make plays in the backfield, trying to force Pittsburgh into third and long situations, and get them off the field. If the Hokies shorten Pitt’s possessions, Pitt won’t have a chance to wear the Hokie defense down with their size. So keep an eye out early on for how successful Tech is in shortening Pitt’s possessions. “Bend but don’t break” isn’t a good thing in this game. It needs to be “don’t even bend.”

Offensively, my concern is mistakes in the passing game. The Hokies have heavily emphasized the run in the last six quarters, calling 86 running plays to just 38 passing plays. If the Tech running game struggles against Pitt, which we all expect it will, and the Hokies have to throw it 35 times or more, then the risk goes up. I really like Michael Brewer as a passer, but his track record is throwing a lot of interceptions, and that’s not likely to suddenly go away overnight.

Those are the issues, but I don’t know how they’re going to shake out Thursday night. Since I believe we’ll get a good effort from the Hokies (unlike some of the past trips to Heinz Field), I’m taking a leap of faith and going with the good guys, in a narrow win.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Pittsburgh 17

What is your prediction for the VT-Pitt game? (Pitt is favored by 2)

  • VT wins by 1-9 (43%, 613 Votes)
  • VT wins by 10-19 (23%, 322 Votes)
  • VT wins by 20+ (4%, 59 Votes)
  • Pitt wins by 1-9 (20%, 280 Votes)
  • Pitt wins by 10-19 (9%, 124 Votes)
  • Pitt wins by 20+ (2%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,428

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18 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. The thing is we have not had a “healthy” Maddy this year and yes not having him hurts but I still don’t see Pitt’s offense scoring 20 on this Defense. Not having our top three RBs hurts but to be honest I am not sure if ever team we play the rest of the season doesn’t sell out to stop the run and force Brewer to beat them. There are going to open receivers in this game, and I really like our match ups against their secondary, particularly at TE. If we can keep from having a pick six and losing the turnover battle I see an easy Tech win.

  2. Under the “intangibles” umbrella: If Shai McKenzie were not injured this would be a sort of homecoming for him, and we might expect him to have a break out game. But he is injured and not playing.

    How much of an effect will his being there in Heinz Field and his team playing for him be?

  3. We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, time and time again. False start penalties. Holding penalties. Illegal blocks in the back that kill good field position on punts and kicks. Kickoffs OOBs. Interceptions. Reduce these to more mainstream numbers and i feel good about this game. Another game loaded with them and we’re taking a fast elevator to the bottom of the ACC.

  4. I see way too many 3rd and longs and Brewer will hit some, but the defense is going to be gassed by the 4th. Here’s to hoping a few outta wack TO’s and special teams plays go in our favor!

  5. We had a MUCH bigger OL than Rutgers’ DL in the Russell bowl…how’d that work out for our run game?

    Quickness in the D front 7 sometimes trumps size

  6. Chris, you are in for it. You picked VT to lose. Some people can’t handle that as we know. You VT basher you. Actually, I think it would be a tight game with all our starting D and O available. We had enough problems running the ball with all of them available so missing the top two is a big problem. For some reason, I think we will be ok on D. The problem is, as many times, we leave the D on the field too long and run them into the ground due to too many 3 and outs on the O. Could be wrong and hope I am wrong but don’t have a good feeling about this one. I felt the same way about OSU game and look what happened…

  7. Brewer spins it for 4 scores, the boys block a punt for 6 and Stroman takes one back. The defense shuts down the run game and records their first shut out of the season.

    42-0! Mark it down!

  8. I see our Defense shutting down (or at least minimizing) Pitt’s running game, picking off a couple passes in their pass game, and our Offense doing enough to win by a couple of scores. I kind of like vtgriffo9’s thinking with respect to our Offense’s game plan. We’re gonna have to be creative and we have athletes that can pull it off. This all assumes we don’t penalize ourselves into oblivion.

  9. Pitts massive OL will have their way… and when we stack the box they will start throwing all over the field… Even Will is predicting a loss for this one.. damn…

    1. Wow I am surprised that you picked us to lose!! Incredible….

      What about your Hoos vs Duke??

      And Will picked VT

    1. We will not get mauled by Pitt’s O-Line. Do you forget how large the OSU o-line was. Wbike our pass coverage has been sketchy at times (and most of that is directly accounted for poor schemes and stubborness with man coverage when we are getting burnt), we have handled the running games of every team rather well. This is absolutely a one dimensional team that sets up for what we do well. I just hope to God that we have KFuller shadowing Boyd to eliminate the one part of their passing game that can hurt us. I don’t remember the last time this specific group got manhandled…they held their own vs Bama’s NFL loaded line (well I guess BC and Williams last yr). We will be fine.

  10. I hope VT wins , but I look for Pitt to pull this game out because of Turnovers by VT . I have been there for two of VT’s games, beautiful place for Football . I will miss going to the game this year, maybe that will be the turning point for VT and my prediction will be wrong…

  11. I don’t think the “Hokies hope to snap Pittsburgh losing streak”. In fact, they would like to extend Pittsburgh’s losing streak to four games. They might want to snap their Heinz Field losing streak, but they are on a 2 game win streak and a 1-game win streak vs Pitt. Not commenting on what you meant, just what was written.

  12. Pitt= offense that runs more than throwing = great matchup for VT’s defense.

    VT offense is using Caleb and Coleman as the 2 rbs. This means that the offensive coordinator may be forced to be more creative. Maybe a throw back screen to the TE off a bott coming? Reverse pass? McMillan to be used in rb? Parker to see the field with Newsome on jet sweeps? Reverse pass from Parker?

    I think we will be forced to be creative, this will open up a bad running game and aid a poor pass blocking unit. This will create big plays, and I see us winning this game by 10+.

    VT 27. PITT 13

  13. This game is definitely concerning given the injuries for VT. However, Bud seems to feast on one-dimensional teams. Agreed this one will be ugly but hopefully the VT defense can limit Pitt enough offensively that they can get by with a conservative game plan on offense.

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