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Virginia Tech Hokies Hold on to Beat the Heinz Field Curse and Pitt: 39 – 36

Well we won. It was a shootout and a slugfest but could have been a blow out for us. We had unlikely heroes. We had great passing. We had inscrutable play calling and no success running. There were clutch field goals. Interceptions and dropped picks. This was a Character Game for the Virginia Tech memory book.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
Up to Bucky!!!!
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

My blood pressure medication worked. I am still here; though the Hokies seemed determined to have my family calling the wagon to pick up my limp remains. The Hokies, in what will be recorded, beat the Pittsburgh Panthers in a, shootout; 39 to 36. Well, maybe it wasn’t a shootout, maybe it was a slugfest, though the highest scoring slug-it-out contest that I have seen in 53 years of football fandom. The win helps salve the reality that this should have been a blow out, and that’s what this game review is going to concentrate on. We aren’t going to recount each play by play if you want to see that, all you need to do is look at one of the public sports sites like Yahoo Sports.

We are going to look at what happened from a team and system level since Tech didn’t dominate, even though we did right up to a point. That point was about the Pitt 15 yard line. So we begin with the game plan and adjustments made to it in order to facilitate the big win that we needed so badly.

There didn’t seem to be a game plan that dealt with the Pitt defense effectively. Why do I say that when we scored 39 points and won the game? Pat Narduzzi almost beat us. We almost beat us. James Conner almost beat us. None of that happened, but a win this close and a rolling slugfest this wide ranging and unusual will always present lessons that must be internalized and adjusted for.

The first learning experience is on the Defense. The first item on the list of lessons that must register; Prevent Defense prevents winning. Pitt scored 14 points on Tampa-two zone coverage in the last two minutes of each half, the first put a serious dent in the score that left us will too tiny a cushion. The 2nd was a near disaster that almost cost the game (admittedly the 2nd also had to do with the toughness and effectiveness of James Conner – who we all will see in the NFL soon). The Hokie defense was spotty. Thankfully it was ‘on’ in several critical 3rd and 4th quarter situations but overall Pitt’s offense taxed the Hokie D about as much as any offense can without the opponent actually winning the football game. Bud needs to get it set in his head that unless we have less than a few minutes in the game and more than a three score lead, prevent defense is a loser. I know that he doesn’t want to get burned, and there is this football calculation that will trade points for time attempting to score them; but with modern pass offenses the bet is a poor one.

The defense got almost no quality pressure on Nate Peterman. Now, on the good side, Peterman’s running game wasn’t a real factor in the outcome. He didn’t rescue a ton of drives with his feet. His game end numbers were interesting and of reasonable quality but they weren’t game breaking feats of football fabulism. He played a consistent game but got away with much, including four dropped/near interceptions and one solid pick by Mook Reynolds. Our defensive line seemed to be keyed more to stopping him from ripping us up, and stopping the Conner impression of an Abrams tank. The former we pulled off, the latter wasn’t as successful. The net that the defense needs to take from this game is that they lost 14 critical points on fast strike downfield drives because they were playing a lose zone instead of our usual heavy pressure, mixed zone and man coverage. I get the feeling that the regular defense at the end of the 1st half might have saved us a game narrowing score. The fourth quarter drive might or might not have been stopped; Pitt was playing like their hair was on fire. There were no real standouts to isolate for finger wagging, and certainly not a tremendous number of great individual efforts. Mook Reynolds’s pick was early but definitely important. Stroman broke up several and nearly picked a few off. The Edmunds brothers remain fearsome and an absolutely natural team that will carry us, both are developing into star defensive players. The line was playing its best, but beaten up by injuries. Vinny Mihota is still feeling that shoulder separation and Ken Ekanem was about as one armed as you can get and still be effective. The defense was a team for the Pitt game, and its successes and failures were all shared as a team.

The Offense was, well, inscrutable in the first half. We left 16 points on the field in the first half, maybe even 20. The sad reality was that we had the possibility of completely running (or throwing our way) away from Pitt in the first and second quarters. The score before the 7th minute of the 2nd quarter should have been 28 to (whatever Pitt could manage – 7, maybe). Even the ESPN announcers were completely flummoxed in regard to our vapid play calling inside the red zone, and even more torpid efforts inside the 15. Pat Narduzzi was loading the box and triple stacking the defense to stop the run between the tackles. There is no excuse for the burning pages of the running game plan to have not been spotted from the coaching box in the stands. Cornelsen violated rule number 3 of basic offense; if your opponent loads the box and gives you the back side of the zone, get there, fast and often! There seemed to be this almost bull headed demand to pound the rock up the middle to score points. Well we were just pounding our collective heads against a Pittsburgh brick wall three layers thick. We wasted four drives on roughly 14 slow developing QB or HB draws up the middle, halfback ISO’s and slow dying dives from the shotgun. We got exactly one quality running touchdown on the ground (it was much needed don’t get me wrong) as Marshawn Williams executed a nice cut against the grain to pop across the goal line from the 2.

Special Teams played a much bigger part in this football game than would normally be analyzed by the sports world. There was a strip fumble courtesy of #25 wearing Divine Deablo, on the first kickoff to Pitt after the Hokies opened the scoring. That set up another stall, but another chance for the actual big star of the game. Hammering in 21 total points, kicker Joey Slye carried more than half of the team’s scoring on his foot. That big leg also negated the Pittsburgh return game. Slye made an ACC and Tech record tying six field goals in the notoriously difficult venue of Heinz Field. Joey was dead solid perfect on every one of his kicks which were spread out between the hash marks. Nothing in “The Big Ketchup” is a gimme when it comes to kicking a field goal, or even a PAT for that matter. The last of Slye’s six three-pointers was the margin of the victory. He kicked that one with 9:29 left in the fourth quarter. Yes, that beautiful Evans to Ford TD strike in the front right corner of the end zone was the last Tech score, but Pitt negated that with a TD of their own. Joey was 100% on his scoring attempts, that perfection was the win, folks. There needs to be a special mention for the Hokies’ underappreciated punter. Mitchell Ludwig was pure gold in Heinz Field. In a swirling gusty difficult situation and faced mostly with short “pooch” punts that don’t help the fantasy averages, Ludwig dropped punt after punt deep into Pitt territory often leaving them behind their own 15 yard line with no chance to return the kick. That’s what great punters do; put the opposition in bad field position. Ludwig deserves a special hat tip.

We aren’t going to talk about the officiating, Narduzzi’s unsportsmanlike sideline/field tantrums, and bad calls at inopportune times; we just aren’t.

What else can you say? A win is a win. This one will eventually be seen as one of those “character” wins that the team will reach back and remember when times are tough. They hung in. They came from behind. They executed 400 plus yards of passing. Brenden Motley came in to cover for an injured Jerod Evans and got a three point drive on the board, he also got a nice measure of revenge for last season’s loss to Pitt at home. The team needs to savor this one. It was a win in a stadium that Tech has never won in before. They won with little fan support, and difficult wind conditions. This one, they’ll remember. Add to that, we are now Bowl Eligible and we still have four games to go!

But now, it’s on to Durham, North Carolina, and Wallace Wade Stadium to face the David Cutcliffe coached Duke Blue Devils. That’s the only thing that should be on anyone’s mind for the next week and several days. We have a long week to prepare, get healed up, and remember that it’s One Game. One Team. Right Now!