Matchups: Pitt-Virginia Tech

It's a key ACC Coastal Divison for both teams. Whoever wins Saturday takes one step closer to challenging Miami for first place. Virginia Tech already has wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina. A win Saturday clinches bowl eligibility for them. A win for Pitt keeps the Panthers in the thick of the Coastal race.

Matchup Preview | October 12, 2013; 12 PM, Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
Virginia Tech Hokies
(5-1, 2-0)
Pitt Panthers
(3-1, 2-1)
If you compare Logan Thomas (6-6, 260) to some of the other ACC quarterbacks, from a numbers standpoint, he doesn't rank near the top. Nonetheless, Pitt will have its hands full on defense. Thomas ranks ninth in the ACC in total offense (223.5 yards per game). Pitt's defense has faced tougher challenges in Florida State's Jameis Winston (2nd, 315.2 yards per game) and Duke's Brandon Connette (6th, 249.2 yards per game). Until Pitt's defense steps up and stops an opposing quarterback, Thomas or any other quarterback is going to be a threat. Pitt fared much better in its last game, as Virginia quarterback David Watford completed just 15 passes in 37 attempts. Much of that, however, fell n Watford's own shortcomings. Still, Pitt's cornerback tandem of Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams will provide Thomas a stiff test. If they are allowed to play in man coverage. Jason Hendricks is the 'X' factor. He had two interceptions on Thomas the last time these two teams played. Will that be on Thomas' mind again? Only if the defensive line can get pressure.
Trey Edmunds (6-1, 212) hàsn't had big numbers, but is your typical big Virginia Tech back. Aside from struggling against dual-threat quarterbacks, Pitt's run defense has done a decent job. Edmunds is averaging just over 63 yards a game. Thomas will be the focus, in terms of shutting down the running game. Anything Edmunds can get aside from Thomas will be bonus. In fact, he may be the key to the game. If he can get first downs, or come up big in short yardage situations, it will give Pitt's defense something else to think about.

The only 100-yard rusher Pitt has allowed this season has been Thomas. In these first four gams, opposing running backs haven't factored in much. James Wilder Jr. rushed for 58 yards, Crusoe Gongbay of New Mexico rushed for 95 yards, Duke's Josh Snead rushed for 59, and Virginia's Kevin Parks was held to 34 yards. In addition to that, Pitt has allowed two rushing touchdowns all year from opposing running backs. That stat may be a bit jaded, being that opposing quarterbacks have hurt Pitt more in the running game. Still, it's worth noting that in four games, and all it's shortcomings, Pitt's defense has found a way to limit opposing running backs. Getting Shane Gordon back this week will be a big boost, especially with Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez playing up to par.
The focus here is on the interior line. The last time these two teams played, it was Andrew Miller (6-4, 304) starting at center. Miller is now the starter at right guard--a versatile player throughout his Hokie career. David Wang (6-2, 288) is now the starter at center. At left tackle, it's true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin (6-4, 310), left guard is junior Caleb Farris (6-3, 309) and right tackle is junior Brent Benedict (6-5, 304). The Hokies are giving up 1.5 sacks a game, middle of the pack in terms of teams in the conference.

The key to shutting down Virginia Tech's offense starts up front with Pitt's defensive line. This group gets a boost with the return of defensive end Bryan Murphy, who has missed the last two games due to an unspecified injury. Aaron Donald has six of Pitt's nine sacks for the season. Murphy is the only other defensive lineman with a sack. This group is looking for a breakout game--all this aside from Donald's individual success. If Pitt's going to get any type of pressure, the responsibility falls to everyone else not named Donald. Though his ratio of sacks compared to the rest of the team is impressive, it hasn't translated to Pitt being successful in stopping these dual threat quarterbacks.
Virginia Tech's defensive line is as good as anyone in the conference. In fact, the Hokies lead the ACC with 19 sacks this season, a little more than three per game. In addition to that, the Hokies also lead the conference in run defense, allowing 102.3 yards per game. A typical Bud Foster defense. Take your pick, because any one of Virginia Tech's front four can dominate a game. Derrick Hopkins (6-0, 306) has the most tackles of the group (28). J.R. Collins (6-2, 261) leads the group in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.5), Luther Maddy (6-1, 288) may be the most disruptive, and has 5.5 tackles for loss with three sacks.
Pitt's offensive line has exceeded expectations, but don't expect offensive line coach Jim Hueber to be asking for any medals. The group had its worst outing in its last game with Virginia, allowing seven sacks. In terms of running, the Panthers had little to no running room against the Cavaliers, just eight rushing yards. If any group needed the bye week more than anyone else, it was the offensive line. Not that they needed it, because the group has played well. Allowing seven sacks to Virginia may have been a blessing in disguise--getting a whole extra week to regroup and watch film. Saturday's test will tell the tale.
As if Virginia Tech needs any more playmakers on defense, their secondary might have the biggest collection of playmakers. Starting with corners Kendall Fuller (5-11, 180) and Kyle Fuller (6-0, 193), both have two interceptions. Even with this tandem, the guy hidden in the background that can hurt a defense the most is safety Kyshoen Jarrett (5-11, 195). Jarrett also has two interceptions, and is just as valuable in run support as he is pass coverage. He causes fits for opposing offenses because he looks like a linebacker or safety, with the coverage skills of a corner. And somehow, there's true freshman Brandon Facyson (6-2, 173), who leads the team with four interceptions. Whatever the case, this unit puts the exclamation point on what the front six can do.
The matchup of the day is going to be Pitt's receiving tandem of Devin Street (111.2 yards per game) and Tyler Boyd (106.2) going up against Virginia Tech's secondary. Pitt's receivers have already seen Florida State's secondary, but in terms of playmaking ability, this is the most dangerous group they've faced. Same can be said for Virginia Tech's secondary. Their numbers are impressive, but they have not been tested against a group of receivers like Pitt's. Tom Savage has thrown six interceptions this year--one of the drawbacks from his aggressive style. The game might come down to this one factor--either Savage will get the ball to his receivers, who in turn will make plays. Or, he'll get the ball to Virginia Tech's secondary, who in turn will make plays.
Going along with a great presence up from, Virginia Tech has a pair of linebackers put in position to make a lot of plays in the run defense, and in the pass defense when needed. Jack Tyler (6-1, 236) leads the team with 50 tackles this season. Pretty remarkable, considering how active the front four has been. Tariq Edwards (6-2, 237) is right behind him with 37 tackles. Both are seniors, providing leadership and experience. Put in position to make plays, neither has failed this season.
Pitt is looking to bounce back from eight rushing yards against Virginia a couple weeks ago. Ideally, the Panthers would like to have production from both James Conner and Isaac Bennett. Bennett is averaging over four yards a carry for the season, but carried the ball 12 times against Duke, and just five times against Virginia. Getting both backs involved--to the level we saw against New Mexico, where both finished with over 100 yards--will be a key to victory for the Panthers.
Virginia Tech always seems to have good special teams units, and we're not just talking abou making extra points, field goals and punting the ball well. The Hokies have blocked two kicks this year, but have had similar struggles in kick coverage to Pitt this year. Virginia Tech, surprisingly, ranks last in the ACC with just 17.9 yards per kickoff return. Any kind of improvement in kick coverage this week will be welcome for Pitt. The Panthers are last in the ACC in kickoff coverage (37.2 net yards). By comparison, Miami leads the ACC in kick coverage, with a net yardage of 43 yards per kickoff. The Panthers also rank last in the ACC with just two yards per punt return. Both categories are reflective of the field position battle. Anything Pitt can do to pin Virginia a Tech deeper on kickoffs and punts will help the defense. Anything they can do to get in better field position, can give the offense a shorter field--ideal for a big pass play to build momentum, or establishing the run. In any event, Pitt needs to see improvement from its coverage units.

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