The weekly roller-coaster that is the ACC Coastal Division resumes this Saturday as the Virginia Tech Hokies (7-3, 4-2) host the Pittsburgh Panthers (7-3, 4-2).
The Coastal is currently a three-way battle with these two teams and Virginia. The Hokies, of course, travel to Charlottesville on Black Friday in a game that could determine who plays Clemson in the ACC championship. Tech must get through Pitt first, though, and that won’t be easy.
These are the hottest teams in the ACC north of Clemson. The Panthers were winners of four in a row until a loss to Miami in late October. Since that time, Pitt has won two straight. Last week’s win against North Carolina was major for the Panthers, especially since their star receiver, Maurice Ffrench, was out with a jaw injury. Ffrench is questionable for tomorrow’s game against the Hokies.
Much like Pitt, Virginia Tech is hot, too. The Hokies have also won their last two games and five of their last six. Their only loss in that span was a one-point loss at Notre Dame when starting quarterback Hendon Hooker was out with a knee injury. Tech has dominated its last two games with a 36-17 win over a then-red-hot Wake Forest team and last week’s 45-0 annihilation of Georgia Tech.
The Panthers play a lot of close games, as they average 22 points per game, while giving up 20.8 points per game. Head coach Pat Narduzzi will count on his outstanding defense to confuse Hooker and VT’s hot offense. Pittsburgh actually leads the nation in team sacks with 45 and sack yardage with 287. A strong front four leads the charge as Jalen Twyman leads Pitt with 9.5 sacks with Virginia native Patrick Jones right behind him with seven sacks. Amir Watts and Deslin Alexander are two more of Pitt’s outstanding defensive line.
Not only do the Panthers get after the passer, but they also stop the run. Opponents are averaging only 90 yards rushing per game, at a clip of 2.77 yards per attempt. Running against this front seven is going to be tough.
Fortunately for the Hokies, their young offensive line is starting to settle in and thanks to misdirection and a host of talented weapons, the offensive staff has done things to get the running game going recently. That trend must continue in order to move the ball on the ground against the Panthers. Not only is this a talented defense, it is also disciplined unit. Those jet sweeps the Hokies have had so much success with recently will be much more difficult against this group.
The Panthers are No. 6 in run defense and No. 10 in total defense. They also rank No. 9 in pass-efficiency defense. This will be Hooker’s biggest test to date and arguably the best defense Tech has faced all season. Notre Dame always has a strong defense, but this unit is just as good, if not better.
Head coach Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson have done a good job recently of getting talented tight ends Dalton Keene and James Mitchell more involved in the offense. That has helped the unit overall and I would expect that to be a heavy point of emphasis on Saturday. Pitt does have fast linebackers and safeties, so nothing will come easy.
Offensively, Ffrench is going to try and give it a go. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the medical staff intervenes on this one. That means there will be more pressure on junior quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett seemed to respond quite well against UNC without Ffrench, having his best performance of the season, completing 25 of 41 passes for 359 yards. The Hokies will certainly look to make Pickett uncomfortable.
Maurice Ffrench is a “game-time decision” for Saturday, per Pat Narduzzi.— Post-Gazette Sports (@PGSportsNow) November 21, 2019
Ffrench — who, according to Narduzzi, broke his jaw — had a procedure to put a steel plate in after the GA Tech game. The WR practiced this week in a non-contact fashion.
“He’s way ahead of schedule”
There is a bit of the revenge factor for the Hokies in this game. As we all know, this is Bud Foster’s last home game as defensive coordinator. In last season’s meeting between these two schools, the Hokies allowed almost 500 yards on the ground. It was the worst defensive performance in Foster’s history and one he has spoken about since that time. He was embarrassed. The team was embarrassed. The Panthers could do anything they wanted last year, averaging eight yards per play. That won’t happen again.
The 2018 Virginia Tech-Pitt game didn’t get enough credit for what it was: arguably the most comprehensive domination by one Power 5 team against another this century. Really! https://t.co/0uSCbqRZNk— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) November 22, 2019
Pitt ranks No. 79 in total offense, just a few spots below the Hokies. However, the Hokies are trending up, while this is where Pitt has been most of the season. The Panthers, who usually feature a strong rushing offense, have struggled running the ball this year. They rank No. 107 in rushing offense and average just 3.65 yards per attempt. The Hokies must shut down Pitt’s running game early and force the Panthers to rely solely on Pickett’s arm. That will lead to more turnover opportunities for the defense, too.
Lane Stadium will be electric on Saturday. Lots of emotion in the stadium, even on what is expected to be a nasty day with rain and cooler temperatures. The Hokies are back in the thick of the ACC title race and Saturday is another major step in winning the Coastal. This game should be close, perhaps even coming down to the final possession.
Kickoff will be 3:30 PM ET and the game will be televised on ESPN2.