Prediction: Pitt to fall short in vital game at VT


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Patrick Jones II (91) pursues a sack of UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7).

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

In Lane Stadium two years ago, Pitt fans were filled with optimism before suffering through a heartbreaking loss that came down to the final play. Then, when the Virginia Tech Hokies entered Heinz Field last year, they were shocked by a near perfect performance from the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Now in one of the most important games of Pat Narduzzi’s head coaching career, Pitt fans can only pray the Panthers will channel last year’s energy into Saturday’s matchup, which has vital Coastal division implications.

The loss at Lane Stadium two years ago was actually the first major performance of junior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s career. Early in the game, Pitt decided to sub in the first-year for only the third time of the season. He proceeded to take most of the snaps for his team.

After a miraculous fourth-down completion from Pickett to wide receiver Jester Weah resulted in what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown, it was ruled that his knee touched down just short of the end zone. The Panthers had four chances to punch it in from the goal line in the game’s waning seconds. They were stopped on all four attempts, and Pitt fans were left with an awful taste in their mouth — representative of what had been a disappointing season.

The next year was the complete opposite. Pitt never even gave the struggling Hokies a chance, thanks to its dominant run game. The dynamic running back duo of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall torched the Hokies for a combined 421 rushing yards, leading Pitt to a statement 52-22 victory.

With the dominance of the teams’ current defensive lines, fans should expect to see a much different matchup. Pitt (7-3, 4-2 ACC) leads the nation with 45 sacks on the season, and Virginia Tech is just outside of the top 10 with 33. Pitt also ranks seventh in the country in rushing yards allowed per game, with the Hokies also in the top 30.

Junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby is the leader of Virginia Tech’s stout defense. He’s earned ACC Linebacker of the week four times this year, tied for the most of any defensive player in the conference.

No. 25 Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2 ACC) enters Saturday’s matchup as one of the hottest teams in the nation, fresh off of a 45-0 beatdown of Georgia Tech. The Hokies made a quarterback switch after an embarrassing 45-10 loss to Duke earlier in the season, putting in sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker.

With Hooker at the helm, VT is 5-0 and back in the hunt for the Coastal crown. Hooker has been heroic for the Hokies, posting a 61.1% completion rate with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s also racked up four scores on the ground.

An additional and potentially pivotal note is the Hokies’ strong punting unit. Junior Oscar Bradburn leads the nation with a 48.3-yard gross punting average. If this turns out to be a defensive battle, field position could be huge.

The impact of this game in the ACC Championship race is clear. If Virginia Tech wins, all it needs to do is beat Virginia to clinch the Coastal. For Pitt to take the division, it must win on Saturday and beat Boston College next week, and Virginia Tech must also beat Virginia. A Virginia loss is certainly possible, as Virginia Tech has beat the Cavaliers in their past 15 meetings.

With Atlantic division winner Clemson almost surely going to the College Football Playoff, there will be an open spot for an ACC team in the prestigious Orange Bowl. This means that it is fairly safe to assume that whichever team wins the Coastal will be getting a spot in the Orange Bowl, regardless of the ACC Championship result.

If these implications weren’t enough to play for already, Virginia Tech has some extra motivation in this game. Hokies legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who has been with the team since 1987, is retiring after this season, making this his final game at Lane Stadium.

Since becoming defensive coordinator in 1995, Foster has helped lead the Hokies to 27 straight bowl berths, the longest active streak in the NCAA. Since 1996, Foster’s “Lunch Pail Defense” has led all Power Five teams in interceptions (332) and sacks (889).

The hype is there. I want to believe in the Panthers. They’ve shown grit and relentlessness this whole season, and Saturday is their biggest test so far. They are going to come ready to play.

However, Pitt’s monstrous defensive line won’t be enough to shut down Virginia Tech’s near-flawless quarterback play. Pitt, with a weak running game this year, will have to rely too heavily on the pass game against a turnover-feasting defense.
Virginia Tech: 24, Pitt: 21