ACC Coastal foes meet in conference opener with both teams looking to rebound from last week's disappointing losses
Coming into the season, an air of mystery hovered over Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. Coming off bowl-less seasons, Paul Johnson’s Jackets and Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers weren’t expected to challenge for the Coastal crown, but both were getting some hype as dark horse candidates in the ACC.
Two games in, and some views may have changed. Losing at South Florida as Georgia Tech did is hardly a crime, but it did put the Jackets in a tough spot considering that Clemson and Georgia still loom on the schedule. As for Pitt, dropping one to Penn State always stings. Falling at home by the score of 51-6 is a nightmare.
The two ACC schools will meet up for the 13th time this weekend in a series that Pittsburgh leads 7-5.
Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: Raycom Sports/WatchESPN
Spread: Georgia Tech -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run defense for both teams
It goes without saying that it is imperative for Pittsburgh to control the Georgia Tech option attack. The Jackets will get their yards on the ground, that’s for sure, but Pittsburgh can’t get gouged for 436 yards like it did last year. Against a different style of offense, Pitt allowed Penn State to rush for 211 yards at Heinz Field on Saturday night. The Panthers did rush for 245 yards of their own, and they will look to have success facing a Georgia Tech defense that gave up 224 yards on the ground to USF. The team that does the best job of controlling the opposing rushing attack will probably win this game.
2. Who is Kenny Pickett?
Part of Pittsburgh’s optimism coming into the season was due to the expected emergence of the Panthers’ starting quarterback. Pickett played okay late in 2017 against Virginia Tech and then spearheaded the upset over No. 2 Miami to close out the season. But last week, Pitt had to run the ball 52 times due to Pickett's ineffectiveness throwing the ball. Granted, the conditions were not great, but 9-of-18 for 55 yards doesn’t get it done. The weather early Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh should be decent, so we’ll see if the Pickett that Pitt fans hoped for shows up.
3. Georgia Tech backfield injuries
Georgia Tech B-back KirVonte Benson was on his way to another big game when he was lost with an apparent left knee injury in the first quarter of the USF game. Early in the second half, quarterback TaQuon Marshall injured his toe. In each case, a redshirt freshman stepped in and performed: Jordan Mason in the place of Benson, and Tobias Oliver in relief of Marshall. Marshall did return to action later in the game, but Oliver performed well enough to see continued action as well. Benson’s injury is a much bigger deal, as head coach Paul Johnson has announced that the 1,000-yard rusher is done for the season. Mason did his part in the USF game and also had 85 yards in the opener against Alcorn State. The B-back position is very important in Johnson’s offense, and Mason’s play is critical for the Yellow Jackets going forward.
Neither team wants to fall to 1-2 overall and find itself in a one-game hole to start the conference season, so Saturday’s matchup in Pittsburgh is critical. The Jackets haven’t won away from home since the big upset over the Bulldogs in Athens on November 26, 2016. But there are bigger concerns about the direction of the Pitt program. Narduzzi is always emotional on the sideline, and he again went too far last Saturday, picking up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the first quarter. Though it didn’t lead to points, a coach who wants his team to play disciplined football lost his cool yet another time. Even more problematic is that Penn State won the second half 37-0. Since that magical upset over Clemson at Death Valley in late 2016, Narduzzi’s Panthers are 8-9. If Pickett can rebound and add a passing threat to the running of Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh can piece together a solid season. But right now, despite the loss at South Florida, Georgia Tech is in a better place mentally and will break its road losing streak.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 28, Pittsburgh 20
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.