The game against Pitt this weekend has an interesting feel to it. They are both our former and future conference rivals. The two teams have not matched up on the gridiron since 2003, when Pitt took their third straight game in the series, despite the Hokies run of success at the time. For the moment, it would at least appear that the two programs are headed in completely different directions. The Panthers stumbled out of the gate, losing to FCS Youngstown State by two touchdowns at home. They followed that up with another lackluster effort against conference foe Cincinnati. By comparison, the Hokies came back to beat their biggest divisional foe Georgia Tech, and subsequently dispatched of FCS Austin Peay comfortably (at least according to the scoreboard) just days later.
But those are my words, and my sentiments. And here at Gobbler Country (and SB Nation), we have a huge network of team specific sites, including this week's opponent Pittsburgh. So, we're glad to welcome Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill to the site to answer some of our questions about Pitt's current state, their coaching woes and the Virginia Tech/Pitt rivalry. For the full Q & A, continue reading after the jump. Also make sure to check out my answers to their questions here.
During the Q & A I refer to myself as CM (ChicagoMaroon) and to Anson as AW to differentiate the questions and the answers. To avoid any confusion, I use AW for Anson and not CH for Cardiac Hill as those are also my initials.
The full Q & A is listed just below.
CM: Well I guess I gotta go with the obvious one first (sorry). Pitt has stumbled out of the gate, losing unexpectedly to Youngstown State at home in the first game. As Hokie fans, we feel your pain (JMU 2010...). So, what can you tell us about that game and why it happened?
AW: Got a few hours? Seriously, Pitt just didn't look very good. There are a lot of reasons, really, but it all started with the defense. Pitt is not only starting a lot of new players, but playing new ones in several key roles. And while some of them were highly touted recruits, they're still very inexperienced. The defensive line couldn't any pressure on the quarterback and for some reason still unknown to most of us, Pitt's cornerbacks were playing way too far from the receivers. Add it all up and Kurt Hess, one of the better quarterbacks in the FCS, pretty much had time to pick the Panthers apart. Youngstown State was something like 7-7 on third down conversions to start the game and the defense couldn't get off the field. There were also six suspensions announced right before the game, including one starter. Most of those guys were in Pitt's two-deep rotation and expected to play, but regardless of that, it's simply not a game that you can lose at home.
CM: How much do you think Pitt's struggles stem from the continuity issues created by having four coaches in two years (okay, really three, I know)?
AW: I think it was a much bigger deal last year with Todd Graham. Graham had a unique offense that the players never really grasped and most of them weren't really recruited for that system. This year with Chryst, it's different for sure - but it's a pro set offense and 4-3 defense, both staples of the Wannstedt administration. I don't want to brush off all of the coaching changes, but I don't know how much that plays into it. What I do think is a big deal though is all of the position coaching changes. Those are the guys who effect the players from day to day and teaching them different techniques, etc. is bound to catch up to them.
CM: Out of the same vein, I have to ask this question; Hokie fans revere defensive coordinator Bud Foster. He's been a Broyles Award winner (top assistant in NCAA) and a finalist multiple times. He's produced several No. 1 defenses and almost always has top-10 units. He's intense, loyal, passionate and driven...and yet he's never gotten a head coaching offer from a major BCS school (something he has required, turning down all offers that don't meet this criteria). When Wannstedt resigned (was fired, whatever) in 2010, there were strong rumors that Foster was among the leaders to replace them. Hokie fans so much feared his departure, that our former editor created an advisory system, calculating the risk of him leaving/taking the Pitt job. It was a running joke on the site for weeks. When he wasn't hired, we felt like we dodged a bullet...once, then twice. So I have to ask, from a Pitt fan's perspective, if you had to do it all over again, would you have preferred Bud Foster was the hire (it's perfectly okay if you say no, we'll be happy!)?
AW: I definitely remember Foster's name coming up that year, but I don't remember how close it was to happening. Pitt really struck out with Graham, obviously, and Chryst is still a huge question mark at this point. But it's safe to say Pitt probably would have been better off hiring just about anybody else the first time around. So technically, Foster would've been a better choice by default. Couldn't have been any worse, right?
CM: What are your feelings about leaving the Big East? Joining the ACC?
AW: A bit mixed. I've said from Day 1 that Pitt is going to have a harder time competing in football in the ACC and that's looking especially true from what we've seen this year. But with additional money, the instability of the Big East and the strong basketball, it was a no-brainer. The university gets crushed (understandably) by Big East foes, but did what any other school in the conference would have done.
CM: How would you characterize the Pitt fanbase's feelings toward the Hokies?
AW: Many of the younger fans I think will view Virginia Tech as a bit more of a rival. And beating them several years ago when they were highly ranked was a big deal and still remembered a lot. But all in all, I think it will take a little bit of time to get things kickstarted again. 'Indifferent' is too weak a word to classify it, but I don't hear much about Pitt fans having any great hatred towards the Hokies.
CM: Are you glad the two teams will be playing again on a regular basis?
AW: Along those same lines as the answer above - I guess? On one hand, Pitt will have a good home opponent to see every other year, but on the other, it's a difficult game. I think most fans (myself included) probably would like to see some of the rivalries continue that Pitt has built up over the years with West Virginia, Penn State, and to a lesser degree, Notre Dame (which has become an annual opponent for the most part). Note: this Q & A was done before Wednesday. Looks like Anson got his wish. Having only three non-conference games is something that's been discussed a great deal on our site and the move to the ACC limits some rivalry games outside of the conference. But getting back to our original question, Virginia Tech will be a good game for Pitt just because there's at least a bit of history there.
CM: What was your favorite moment in the series to date?
AW: Without a doubt the last game in 2003. Virginia Tech was a top five team and had some NCAA championship hopes and Pitt played a strong game to win at home. Big games by Larry Fitzgerald and Rod Rutherford, too...didn't get much better than that. Note: I officially hate you guys for this game. Flashbacks...UGH 2003 TEAM!
CM: Have there been any signs of life from Pitt that make you think they're going to break out of this funk?Anything behind the scenes Hokie fans wouldn't know about?
AW: The only hope, really, is that some of the young players will improve enough with a few games behind them. One thing that got overlooked in their game against Cincinnati was that Pitt could have been right there at halftime. They trailed 17-0, but in the red zone, had an interception. Quarterback Tino Sunseri also later had a mental lapse in the red zone when he held onto the ball too long, throwing an incompletion as time expired at the half. Pitt could have pulled to within 17-14 quite easily. The offense has some capability of moving the ball a bit and that's encouraging.
CM: Who do you think are some players that might step up in this one for Pitt that the Hokies should look out for?
AW: On offense, the running back position can be pretty lethal. Ray Graham busted a long 50-yard run or so in the Cincinnati game and he's capable of doing that quite easily. The backups, Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell, can also rip off some big gains. If they can control the clock and run the ball well, I think that could prevent the game from getting out of control. Also, watch what the tight ends do. Pitt uses them pretty frequently and they've been targeted quite a bit in the first two games.
CM: What do you realistically see the Panthers doing the rest of the season? Can they recover to make a bowl?
AW: At this point, if Pitt reached a bowl it would have to be considered a monumental success. There just aren't that many games you can point to on the schedule and say that Pitt should win based on what we've seen so far. That said, there are about 4-5 where they should be competitive assuming they get better and if they can steal one or two, you never know. If I had to make a pick right now, I'd probably go with 4-8 for the year - and that's probably a big generous based on what we've seen so far.
CM: Okay, pick time. Who do you have, by how much and why?
AW: Hard to pick Pitt in this one and I just don't see it happening. The biggest reason is that there are too many question marks still on the team. How do they get pressure on the quarterback? Do the linebackers recover? Will the offensive line improve? Is Tino Sunseri going to be adequate? For Pitt to win, all of those areas would dramatically need to improve and I don' t think that's possible. I'll go with Virginia Tech by a couple of touchdowns.
Thanks once again to Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill for doing this Q & A Preview with us. My answers to their questions can be found here. For complete coverage of Virginia Tech football and the 2012 season, Gobbler Country is where you want to be.