Alliteration; Painful Panthers, Pugnacious Pitt whatever the description, there is little or no doubt that in the annals of the modern Virginia Tech College football era, Big East and ACC, Beamer or Fuente, the Pitt Panthers have been the most painful matchup that we have faced.
We’ll just take a look at the Fuente Era to focus in on what we might expect from Pat Narduzzi’s crew on Saturday. The history says that it’s not going to be some sort of runaway. Justin Fuente finally beat the Big Ketchup Whammy in 2016 with a whopping 3 point 39-36 win. The team pretty much left it all on the field for that matchup, and it previewed a Field Goal 50 point spread game with Duke and that annoying home loss to Georgia Tech. But it was a win against Pitt, at Heinz Field. Just that one point was super satisfying. In 2017, the Panthers visited Lane, and proved that they still aren’t intimidated by showing up ready to play. They battled all the way to the final seconds of the game and a 4th down and 2 goal line defensive stand by the Hokies. Again the over/under was less than 50 points, and the goal line drama would have been the ball game since where was no time for anything approaching a last minute drive. JJ’s efficiency was a nonfunctional part of the non-offense by that time, so we all let off a collective whew… and celebrated the 20-14 win.
This season the Hokies head up to Pittsburgh a very different team than the very similar to 2017 Panthers. This season, Kenny Pickett has solidified his position as the Pitt QB. The New Jersey Sophomore doesn’t have superstar stats. He hasn’t passed for over 200 yards in a game this season, and though his completion rate is okay, it’s really been an up and down kind of thing. He has thrown at least one interception in each game. He’s sometimes threat to run but lately he’s been more prone to handing off. He can run pretty well, though, and has done so. He had 76 yards against Duke and 156 on the season; but the fact remains that he’s not the dominant player on the offense. That title belongs to running back Qadree Ollison who’s put up 819 yards this season at a clip of 6.2 yards per carry. Darrin Hall is not far behind him at 658 for an even more impressive 7.4 yards per carry. And that’s how Pitt rolls offensively, they run, and run hard.
The Pitt Defense is competent and manages to put up some stops but they aren’t burning any hope for prestige awards. They work to get the job done, but with the exception of the woeful ACC Coastal lead at 4-1, Pitt is 5-4 overall. That makes them about tied with us in prestige points. The wise guys have given Pitt 3 points in the contest, and that is just about home field advantage.
I cannot disagree with that assessment. I watched the Pitt vs. Hoo game the week before last, and nearly fell asleep. Both teams looked like a couple of high school squads with some big mediocre guys with a couple of stars sprinkled in. There is just no way to really tell where this game is going to go. For the Hokies to win they are going to have to play like their collective hair is on fire. Cornelsen is going to have to resist the urge to run a “control the ball” sort of game plan, open it up and run the intermediate game.
On the defensive side, the team is going to have to stop and/or slow down the run. That means accounting for all three backs, two running backs and the quarterback. Nardo is going to try to beat us on the ground; our numbers say that we are vulnerable there. We just won’t know until the final whistle on Saturday at about 6:30 in the evening. We thought at 14-7 and good control over the game tempo we had a handle on a win with Boston College. We were wrong. We made mistakes. We were too conservative when that didn’t work. We gave the game away. Saturday we have to avoid, what is becoming an unfortunate pattern in the 2018 season, the 2nd half swoon.
The entire season rests on these final three games. Beating Pitt would go a long way to proving to ourselves that we’ve hit bottom and are on the way back up.