All that stands between No. 25 Virginia Tech and a de-facto ACC Coastal Division title game against rival Virginia, is Saturday’s home game against Pittsburgh. It’s Senior Day at Lane Stadium for a small contingent of Hokies seniors, led by safety Reggie Floyd, and also the final home game for retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
All season long, we'll bring you a look from the other side, getting the insight and thoughts of newspaper beat writers from Virginia and Virginia Tech's opponents. These are the local journalists who cover these teams on a daily basis. We hope it reminds you the value of reading local newspapers and their websites.
We asked a Pittsburgh beat writer to answer four downs worth of questions about Saturday’s matchup between the Panthers and Hokies.
1) After opening the season with the home loss to UVA, it felt like Pittsburgh's ACC Coastal title hopes were finished before the year ever got going. Did the Panthers feel that way and how surprised is this time to have a real shot to finish with a share of the Coastal crown?
It was definitely a hit to Pitt's Coastal chances losing to the Cavaliers in Week 1. But at no point did the Panthers think they were out of it. Their win over Central Florida (and valiant performance at Penn State) gave the squad confidence, which it parlayed into a 4-1 run in conference play. Head coach Pat Narduzzi even said in the run-up to Pitt's game at Duke in early October that he wished his Panthers had another shot at Virginia.
2) Pitt's last nine games have been decided by 10 points or less, with seven of those coming down to a single touchdown. Why have the Panthers been in so many close games and what have they shown in this tight contests?
For the most part, the Panthers have shown the ability to close out or come back to win tight games. They stunned UCF with the "Pitt Special" trick play, scored a game-winning touchdown with a minute to go in Durham and effectively killed the clock in their four-minute offense at Syracuse and Georgia Tech. But Pitt held leads of 26-3 and 24-6 at Duke and Syracuse, respectively. Their lack of second-half scoring and inability to finish off drives (116th nationally in touchdown conversion rate in the red zone) have held Pitt back from really putting it to teams.
3) How is Pitt 7-3 with an offense that's been so ineffective? Only Georgia Tech scores less than the Panthers' 22.7 points-per-game average, yet here they are, fighting for the top spot in the Coastal. How much progress has Mark Whipple made making this offense his own and how has he blended Pitt's run-first identity with his more pass-happy approach?
Pitt hasn't totally abandoned running the ball — but the Panthers have that run-first identity of old. Kenny Pickett averages the second-most passing attempts per game, behind only Washington State's Anthony Gordon. The only productive part of the running game in recent weeks has been the Wildcat, which has produced two of Pitt's three rushes of 30 yards or more this season. The offense's primary issue, aside from a lacking running game and Pickett's untimely interceptions, is Narduzzi going conservative in the second half and depending on Pitt's defense to win the game.
4) Obviously, a big part of Pitt's success has been its defense. What's made it so effective, particularly against the run? How has it handled mobile quarterbacks, like new Virginia Tech starter Hendon Hooker, this season?
The front-four, led by Jaylen Twyman (9.5 sacks, most in FBS by a defensive tackle) and Patrick Jones (four fumbles forced, most in the ACC), gets all the credit. But Pitt's linebackers and defensive backs are doing their jobs, too. Kylan Johnson, a Florida grad transfer and Pitt's starter at "Money" linebacker, has six sacks; safety Paris Ford leads all ACC DBs in tackles (72); and the defense as a whole has allowed a completion percentage of 49.9%. Against both the run and pass, the Panthers are getting the job done — whether they're facing a mobile quarterback (Duke's Quentin Harris, Georgia Tech's James Graham, etc.) or not.