GC: First and foremost, how has the ACC treated you so far? Any good experiences? Bad ones?
AW: So far so good, though I guess the sample size is fairly small since Pitt has only played a few games against ACC teams. I missed the Virginia game due to a vacation but did go to the FSU opener and all of the Florida State fans I came across were great.
GC: Tom Savage is the Panthers' starting quarterback, and while I'll admit I haven't watched him play much or paid attention since 2009 when he was at Rutgers, his statistics show that he's doing a pretty good job. Is that an accurate assessment?
AW: Yeah, overall it's really hard to complain with what Pitt has gotten out of him. He was a bit of an unknown since he hadn't played in a game in about three years before he started the opener against Florida State, but has really given Pitt a legitimate passing game. It doesn't hurt when he has two great receivers in Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, who could both play in the NFL someday, but he's been incredibly accurate on deeper passes - something that's been missing for a while. The downside are the interceptions, of course, and he's got six of them. It's a little easier to live with, though, since the Panthers have been moving the ball up and down the field pretty well and scoring some points. He is completing almost 60% of his passes and has ten touchdown passes already, so overall, he's had a decent season.
GC: How big will it be if he's able to be back for the Virginia Tech game as it's now projected?
AW: It's huge that he's playing and Pitt's chances would really decrease significantly if he couldn't go. He was officially cleared on Monday and should be good to go now. The backup, Chad Voytik, has played sparingly this year in a backup role and while he looked great in Pitt's spring game and was highly touted coming out of high school, he's still just a redshirt freshman with practically no game experience. A road game in Blacksburg wouldn't be an ideal way for him to start. Savage playing doesn't guarantee a Pitt win, but it does give them a fighting chance at least.
GC: After the Panthers lost Ray Graham and Rushel Shell last year, the two backs who gashed the Hokies, James Connor and Isaac Bennett have stepped up big time. Do either of those guys have the big play potential of the former backs or have the ability to get yards after contact to keep drives alive?
AW: I think both have the ability for big plays but not like either Graham or Shell. Both are bigger backs and while Bennett has broken big runs in practices and scrimmages, he hasn't done much of that in actual games against good competition. He's really struggled this year for the most part and has taken a back seat to Conner, a true freshman. Conner has some big play ability, but he isn't the type of back that will break 30-40 yard runs with any regularity. He thrives on picking up 7-10 yards when he can and has played well, but I don't think either can match a Graham or even a Shell in terms of actual talent. But give Conner all the credit in the world - he's having a heck of a season so far.
GC: Speaking of Shell, considering where he ended up, I would like to give you this opportunity to say something (anything) about that combination and how that makes you feel. Thoughts?
AW: I'm actually not going to kill Shell for going to WVU. Fact is, he was just immature about his exit from Pitt, but lots of true freshmen are. He tried to go out west and then wanted to come back closer to home. At that point, his options were really exhausted. WVU in the Big 12 really makes it a non-issue for a lot of people since the two teams don't even play anymore. But yeah, if the Backyard Brawl was in existence, it would be a much more bitter pill to swallow.
GC: Is there any more dangerous 1-2 tandem in the ACC than Tyler Boyd and Devin Street? Why or why not?
AW: Man, I don't know to tell you the truth. I can't say I've watched the receivers of every ACC team and having a quarterback like Savage who has been able to get them the ball has given them an advantage, too. But what we do know is that they're a great 1-2 punch and will make things difficult for the conference if they stay healthy. When you have one great receiver, other teams can take that away with a good secondary. Two, though, makes things extremely difficult.
GC: On the defensive side of the ball, Pitt has had its struggles, being beaten up and down the field by Florida State and surrendering 55 points and 500+ yards to Duke, despite stopping a lackluster Virginia offense in its tracks. Is there anything that makes you think this defense is starting to turn the corner?
AW: The defense is really hard to gauge at this point. Florida State looks like they can compete for a national championship, so I think most have been willing to concede that the Seminoles were just too dominant for Pitt. And while the Duke game was certainly a disaster defensively, there were some interesting happenings there, too. For one, Pitt had big leads in each half before allowing Duke to close the gap. I really think part of it was a product of not playing a full 60 minutes and letting up a bit. And while they gave up a ton of points, they also made some big plays in that game, forcing four turnovers. I don't know - I'm not making excuses for the defense, but I don't think they're as bad as maybe they appeared after those two performances.
Another factor is the coordinator, Matt House. House is a new DC after the previous one left for North Carolina State and really had little experience. He was given the job after a long wait and I think the school had other preferences before giving him the job. He's still learning and his system and way of doing things is a bit different to the players I'm sure. Overall, I expect the defense to get better as the season goes along and hopefully the dominant performance at Virginia last week was a part of that.
GC: If you're Frank Beamer, what area(s) of the Pitt defense do you try to attack?
AW: Despite having a secondary that was in the top 25 in the nation last year with three returning starters, the pass defense has struggled a little. Part of that has been due to corners playing more conservatively off off of receivers and the linebackers have had their bad moments as well. Safety Ray Vinopal, the one new guy in the secondary has also become the target of criticism with some poor coverage, so I expect the Hokies to throw his way at least a bit. The pass defense gave Logan Thomas fits last year so Virginia Tech may be a little hesitant to attack them, but that's where I'd start to see if they can pick up some chunks of yardage.
I'd also try to scramble some with Thomas as running quarterbacks have given Pitt's defense nightmares this year. Otherwise, Pitt hasn't been terrible against the run and other than the 101 yards put up by Duke QB Brandon Connette, they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher so far. But quarterbacks have given the Panthers some trouble with their feet.
GC: Vice versa, what area do you try to exploit on the Hokies' defense?
AW: The one thing I think Pitt needs to do is establish some short/screen passing plays to open things up a little. Against Virginia, the offense scored only 14 points and was virtually invisible since those points came on two short drives that were the results of turnovers. Pitt's passing game struggled and they also couldn't run the ball. The one thing that's been missing is the use of screens and short dumps to open things up a little. Part of that is personnel, I think, as Pitt has had quicker guys in the backfield able to do that such as LaRod Stephens-Howling and even Ray Graham. But the Panthers do have a true freshman in Rachid Ibrahim they've been using a little more and he could fit that role well.
GC: Is there any Virginia Tech player Panthers' fans are worried about?
AW: I think it's just the defense as a whole - at least for me it is. In the two games where Pitt has gone up against quality defenses in Florida State and, to a lesser degree, Virginia, the Panthers' offense has really stalled out. I can see the defense having a good game on Saturday since Virginia Tech's offense is a bit questionable, but asking them to pitch a shutout or keep the Hokies down entirely is too much to ask. Pitt may not need to score a ton of points to win, but they need to move the ball better than they did against the Seminoles and Cavaliers.
GC: Likewise, who are some Pitt players that Hokies fans and players should watch out for (under the radar would be nice if possible)?
AW: Under the radar guys would include Todd Thomas on defense. He started out in the doghouse this year after being benched in training camp and then subsequently requesting a transfer before having a change of heart. But he's really become a force on defense and special teams and has been all over the field. Already this season he had a ten-tackle game against New Mexico as an outside linebacker, made a tackle on a fake punt attempt, and has made several key stops. Really athletic kid that has the capability to make big plays on defense and special teams.
GC: Last year the Hokies were absolutely demolished by the Panthers in a game that really jumpstarted the Panthers' season and began the Hokies' downfall. What happened in that game from a Pittsburgh perspective?
AW: My actual title from that game was that 'nothing makes sense'. The win came after the demoralizing loss at home in the opener to Youngstown State and Pitt not only beat the Hokies, but did so fairly comfortably. I think the biggest thing that was a surprise was just how well the defense played, forcing four turnovers and how poorly Logan Thomas played.
GC: Does that result give you any more hope going into this year's game that the Panthers might pull the "upset" twice?
AW: Yeah, definitely. Now, I'm on the record for saying that I think Virginia Tech wins this game, so that shouldn't be taken out of context. But if we're looking at scenarios in which Pitt wins, yeah, the way they played against Thomas last season has to be taken into consideration. Pitt looked like they had no chance in that game but proved everyone wrong by harassing him into some poor decisions.
GC: So with all that in mind, what do you see happening in this one? Who wins, why and by how much?
AW: I think Virginia Tech wins by about 8-10 points. Pitt is playing a lot of true freshmen and while they do have a road game under their belts, playing in front of a light crowd at Duke is hardly what they'll face in Blacksburg. I expect it to be a rowdy atmosphere despite the early start time and as I said before, this offense has still been pretty lackluster when facing good defenses. Pitt absolutely can win this game if they find innovative ways to get the ball down the field and I'm not convinced Virginia Tech is as good as their 5-1 record. Still, I'll take them in this game.
Thanks again to Anson for joining us for the Q & A. For all the news and coverage from the Panther perspective this weekend and throughout the season, make sure to check out Cardiac Hill. For all the Hokie stuff you could ever want, don't move a muscle. YOU'RE ON IT here at Gobbler Country.