After all that's unfolded this year in the ACC Coastal Division, three teams are still alive with two weeks remaining, including the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Virginia Tech Hokies — two teams that will meet up in Blacksburg on Saturday. Pittsburgh would still need some additional help to win the division, but Virginia Tech controls its own destiny.
Both teams are coming in hot. Pittsburgh has won six of seven after defeating North Carolina at home last Thursday. The Hokies have won five of six and have come away with four straight league wins. Their two victories following the close loss at Notre Dame have been especially impressive — they whipped Wake Forest 36-17 and smoked Georgia Tech 45-0.
The two programs have played 18 times, with Virginia Tech holding a 10-8 series lead.
Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Virginia Tech -3.5
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
Pitt was able to defeat North Carolina despite not having star receiver Maurice Ffrench available due to a broken jaw. Ffrench’s status is still up in the air at this moment, but it shouldn’t change the Panthers’ strategy going into the game. Running the ball has been a challenge for much of the year, and the Virginia Tech defense, since allowing 234 yards to Duke in Week 5, has been lights out against the run.
As a result, Pittsburgh’s game plan will still be to put the ball in the hands of quarterback Kenny Pickett. Considering that he was without his top receiving target, the junior from Oakhurst, N.J., played probably his best game of the year against North Carolina, completing 25-of-41 passes for 359 yards. Taysir Mack continued his strong play at receiver, and Shocky Jacques-Louis emerged as a big-play threat in Ffrench's absence.
Pickett will test Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense more than Georgia Tech did this past weekend, but the Hokies D has been stellar since the calendar turned to November. Notre Dame did accumulate 447 total yards but scored just 21 points, while Wake Forest and Georgia Tech had 435 total yards and 17 points between them. Perhaps most importantly, Virginia Tech has forced seven turnovers in the last three games. Pitt is minus-four in turnover margin on the year and has given the ball away 16 times, so the Hokies should be hunting change-of-possession opportunities.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
Turnovers have been a problem for the Hokies' offense as well. Their 17 giveaways are tied for 12th in the ACC, with fumbles being the biggest issue. Interceptions hurt the team early in the season, but since Hendon Hooker was inserted as the starting quarterback for the Miami game, the Hokies have thrown just one interception, and that was by Quincy Patterson, in relief of an injured Hooker, at Notre Dame.
Hooker has been very efficient, and he has a deep receiving group that he is able to utilize. But it has been the Hokies' ability to run the ball in a unique way that has given the offense life. Leading rusher Deshawn McClease is averaging 60 yards per game, but he has been assisted in recent weeks by quarterback runs and receivers on jet sweeps. Against Georgia Tech, receivers Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson both had long runs.
And that may be an interesting way to attack this Pittsburgh defense. Head coach Pat Narduzzi loves his defensive players to be very aggressive, and Virginia Tech may counter that by creating flow in one direction and then reversing it back the other way with a receiver. Pittsburgh leads the nation with 45 sacks, and the Panthers are comfortable playing press coverage with corners Dane Jackson and Jason Pinnock, with Damarri Mathis seeing a lot of time as well.
There are many similarities between the two teams. Both Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the league. Neither team has been all that effective running the ball in a traditional way. Turnovers have been a big part of their seasons, both from a takeaway and, more importantly, a giveaway perspective. And of course, both still have division title hopes. But Virginia Tech seems to be playing with a little more confidence right now. The Hokies' last two wins have been dominating, and Hooker has changed the look of the offense. Plus, this game is at Lane Stadium. Adding it all up, in a battle to the finish, Virginia Tech comes out on top and will meet up with Virginia on Nov. 30 to decide the division championship.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, 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.