The Pittsburgh Panthers are coming to Blacksburg this Saturday. For the second time in two seasons, the Hokies are ranked while the Panthers are not. If there was ever a time for the Hokies to be on guard to avoid a letdown, it is this Saturday.
Remember how bad the Panthers blew out the Hokies in 2012? It was so bad of a first loss, it knocked the Hokies out of the polls all the way from No. 13, never to return, and dealt them a huge psychological blow. If you need to be reminded of the last year loss, here's the YouTube clip of it (warning: may cause a lot of NSFW cursing, indigestion, and loss of sleep. Gobbler Country will not be held liable for those and other ill-effect aliments from clicking on the YouTube link).
There are already some folks who are looking ahead to the November 9 showdown against Miami Hurricanes. Pump the brakes, put your vehicle in reverse, and park right here for a moment. We have a big test in the Panthers. They are primed for an upset. They have beaten the Hokies four-straight times. Do I need to bring up the YouTube clip again...?
It is great that a lot of folks are feeling good about this Hokies football team, who have won five-straight since losing to Alabama in Atlanta, but the expectations need to remain low as this team is still a work in progress. The running game has practically disappeared after that brilliant 77-yard touchdown run against Alabama, and the only consistent running threat has been Logan Thomas. Does this sound familiar? That is the same complaint some fans have had about last year!
However, unlike last year's offense, this offense appears to have a direction. Under Scot Loeffler, the offense has finally found a niche as a pro-style, but pass-heavy offense, similar to the New England Patriots, utilizing mismatches. It contains a vertical threat with a burner like Demitri Knowles, a reliable route runner in Willie Bryn and tough-catching Joshua Stanford. Then there's a rising star in tight end Klavin Cline, who is still learning the nuances of being a blocking tight end, but is a steady pass-catcher. There's also some pretty good receiving skills out of the backfield from either fullback Sam Rogers (don't you just wish he scored on that beautiful catch and run against UNC?!), and running backs Trey Edmunds, J.C. Coleman, and Chris Magnus. This gives Loeffler plenty of weapons to use against the Panthers' defensive front. It should be noted that the Panthers' defense isn't exactly as strong as Bud Foster's defense, but the fact they were able to hold UVA to a measly 3 point does speak to something.
The Hokies' offensive line is far more suited for pass protection, but still have issues with run blocking, which is still the same as last season. The major difference, six games in this season, is the coaching of the line. Jeff Grimes has not shied away from shuffling the lineup each week to get the best five on the field that he trusts to execute the game plan. That is a drastic departure from the former coach, Curt Newsome, who seem to be perfectly content to leave in the same five players who would not fight to the whistle.
Fortunately, the Hokies' defense has looked stout all-season long, in spite of being pushed to the absolute limit against Marshall and then having to defend the triple-option offense of Georgia Tech. This may be Foster's best defense in some time. Of course, the defense may be extremely motivated to atone for the disaster from last fall, when the Panthers' running backs ran wild on the normally stout run defense of the Hokies.
The secondary is going to be tested this weekend as noted in the Panthers Game Guide. Whether Atone Exum returns or not, the secondary is going to have to continue to step up and defend well. Hopefully, the defensive line will continue to play masterfully and opportunities for sacks should be aplenty. If UVA was able to tally seven sacks against the Panthers, the Hokies should be able to do the same.
The trouble with looking ahead is we don't know how the Hokies will fare against the Panthers. We can worry about the Miami game when we get there. Until then, the Panthers are the immediate threat. Fortunately, Logan Thomas has made it clear that he knows the team has plenty of work to do in this blog post by Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter. Leadership and an absence of cockiness is what it will take this time around to make sure the Hokies get the job done.