Each week, TheVTZone.com catches up with the beat writer who covers the Hokies' opponent. This week, we touched base with PantherMore.com publisher Ryan Bertonaschi for details on the Panthers.
1) After everything James Conner has been through, is it fair to say he's better now than before? And in what ways?
BERTONASCHI: Not at all. Conner is nowhere near as cut as he was during his sophomore and junior seasons, nowhere as fast as he was and nowhere near as dangerous as he was. Right now, we're not seeing the same Conner that ran by defensive ends, broke linebackers' tackles and ran over safeties in 2014, which was his last full season. That isn't to say that Conner hasn't been productive, because he's been a very reliable back and has surpassed the statistical expectations I had for him heading into this season after beating cancer and sustaining a torn MCL in the past year. Conner has found a different role in Pitt's offense, which is to bull his way ahead for positive yardage once every series while blocking for quarterback Nathan Peterman and moving the sticks on third and fourth down and short.
Pitt could use as many as four running backs Thursday. To put Pitt's backfield into perspective, Conner is the starter, but true freshman Chawntez Moss has worked his way ahead of Darrin Hall, a sophomore speedester who looked impressive as a freshman, and Qadree Ollison, who was the ACC's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Ollison is now the fourth-string running back. Rachid Ibrahim, a redshirt junior running back who came to Pitt with Conner in 2013, played a lot early in his career, but he is now the Panthers' fifth-string running back who has exclusively received reps this season on special teams.
2) Bud Foster said Pitt has the best OL VT has faced this season. What makes them so effective?
BERTONASCHI: Pitt's offensive line has been dubbed by many as the best in the country. It allows 0.71 sacks game, which is first in the ACC and seventh nationally. The left side of the line features an NFL guy in Adam Bisnowaty at tackle and an NFL guy in midseason All-American Dorian Johnson at guard. Its center, Alex Officer, has sent Peterman a few bad snaps over the past couple years and he was clocked a year and a half ago as Pitt's slowest player, but at 6-4, 335, Officer has the size to play at the next level.
On the right side of the line is Alex Bookser, a sophomore NFL guy at guard, and Brian O'Neill, a redshirt sophomore and tight end convert at tackle who beat out 6-7, 325-pound NFL guy Jaryd Jones-Smith for the starting job. If I'm not mistaken, O'Neill has not allowed a hurry, hit or sack this season.
3) The Panthers have scored a lot of points, but no one is calling them a high-powered offense. How would you describe their offense?
BERTONASCHI: All season long, Pitt's offense has gone through spurts of feast then famine, with the feast always coming before the famine. I wrote earlier this week that (http://www.scout.com/college/pittsburgh/story/1719928-the-emergence-of-the-jet-sweep) Pitt scores on average 24 points per first half, but it has consistently come out cold in the second half, scoring just 14 points per second half. If it would carry over its level of offensive output from the first half into the second half of games, it would have a top 5 scoring offense in the country.
Watch out for Pitt's jet sweeps. New Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada (who came from NC State) recognized coming into the season that Pitt has several play makers at slot receiver. Canada decided he needed to get them the ball in the easiest way possible. Seventeen percent of Pitt's offensive plays are jet sweeps, primarily to midseason All-American specialist Quadree Henderson. Henderson is eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (172.86 ypg), first nationally in kickoffs returned for touchdowns (2), first nationally in combined kickoff return yards (687) and first nationally in yards per kickoff return (35.9). If it's not no. 10 Henderson who receives the jet sweeps, it will come from no. 9 Jordan Whitehead (a safety), no. 2 Maurice Ffrench, no. 5 Tre Tipton, no. 82 Rafael Araujo-Lopes and no. 35 George Aston (a speedy fullback).
The success rate of the jet sweeps is determined by Peterman, who, at quarterback, is given a run-pass option out of the huddle. If he sees something he likes within the defense, he motions for one of the players listed above to come across the backfield, where he hands the ball off. Pitt has averaged 8.6 yards per jet sweep.
4) Pitt's defense seems to struggle against the pass. What has been the reason for this?
BERTONASCHI: Pitt got a huge recruiting win when Pittsburgh Central Catholic cornerback and Scout.com four-star Damar Hamlin chose to stay at home and attend Pitt this past winter. But Hamlin, who was Pitt's projected no. 2 starting cornerback, was sidelined to an injury before the season and he hasn't played a down this year. All signs right now point to a redshirt.
Not only will Hamlin probably sit out against the Hokies Thursday, but no. 1 cornerback Avonte Maddox likely will, as well. Maddox was roughed up a couple weeks ago during a game, and I would be surprised to see him play Thursday. This leaves Pitt with four inexperienced, slow and mistake-prone cornerbacks to face Travon McMillian and Jerod Evans.
5) The Panthers have owned this series recently. That, plus the way Pitt has been playing, how confident is it going into this game?
BERTONASCHI: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had this to say Monday about Pitt's recent success against Virginia Tech: "If we need the past to help with our confidence, then we've probably got issues. Like, 'Hey, we've got a chance to win because this is what happened in the past.' It doesn't matter. This is a new football team. They're coming in here, they have never come in here in October of 2016 to play us. So they get a chance to come here and it's a new show."
Bertonaschi's fearless prediction:
Well, an hourly forecast hasn't been revealed yet for Thursday, but we are looking at a 100 percent chance of rain for the entire day.
We've seen Las Vegas' spread even out somewhat in the past two days (from Virginia Tech -4.5 to Virginia Tech -3.5), and if we find out that it will rain all throughout the game, that spread will disappear and, in my mind, the game slides into Pitt's favor. Pitt would have the edge because of how dominant the Panthers have been on the ground and how piss poor their defensive backfield (minus Whitehead) has played to date.
If the rain holds off, I'll go with Virginia Tech 45, Pitt 35. If it rains, I'll go with Pitt 35, Virginia Tech 21.