The Hokies must deal with Panthers QB Kenny Pickett on their visit to the Steel City
The Virginia Tech Hokies and Pittsburgh Panthers, both at 4-4 overall and hovering around the middle of the ACC standings, will face off against each other at Heinz Field this Saturday. And which direction each of these teams is headed for the remainder of the season could be in the balance on Saturday.
The Hokies have lost their last two contests by a combined four points. After falling in the most devastating way against Liberty, Virginia Tech followed it up by blowing an 11-point third-quarter lead in a 25-24 loss to Miami. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had lost four in a row before getting the ultimate cure-all: a game with Florida State.
Virginia Tech has won three of the last four contests in this series, including a 28-0 whitewash in Lane Stadium last season.
Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Virginia Tech -3
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
The strength of the Virginia Tech offense is clear. They succeed when Khalil Herbert and quarterback Hendon Hooker are running the ball effectively. The Hokies have gotten in trouble when they get off schedule, which they did constantly at the end of the Miami game. After the Hurricanes scored to cut the Virginia Tech lead to 24-19 with 1:27 left in the third quarter, the Hokies' next seven first-down plays resulted in seven total yards and an interception.
When the offense is clicking, Herbert, Hooker, and the talented group of receivers can be special. But it starts up front. For the most part, the offensive line has protected the quarterback pretty well, and they have been outstanding in the running game. But in those times when the offense has been bogged down — like late in the Miami game — the Hokies have lost along the line of scrimmage.
Virginia Tech's line play will be the story this week, as well. Patrick Jones II, Rashad Weaver, and the other Pittsburgh defensive linemen are a nasty group. The Panthers lead the nation in both sacks and tackles for lost yardage. Their 11.63 tackles for lost yardage per game is a full 2.5 more than Clemson, which is second among teams that have played at least five games. Sophomore linebacker SirVocea Dennis is tied for second in that category and Weaver checks in at No. 6 with Jones tied for eighth. The secondary took a hit when Paris Ford opted out, and offenses that have hurt Pitt have mostly done it through the air. But the Panthers are still third in the ACC in pass defense, so it is hardly a major weakness.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The Pittsburgh offense looked much better in their most recent game. Granted, playing Florida State is a little different than going up against the defenses of Notre Dame and Miami. But Kenny Pickett's return as the starting quarterback played a substantial role as well. On the season, Pickett has completed 62.3 percent of his throws and has accounted for 14 total touchdowns. In the two games that the senior missed with an injured ankle, Pittsburgh managed just 462 total yards of offense and 22 total points.
Regardless of the player taking snaps, the play of the offensive line has been a major problem, resulting in an anemic running game. It is true that Pittsburgh is lacking a back that opposing defenses fear, but primary ball carrier Vincent Davis is getting little help up front. Even though Virginia Tech's defense has been inconsistent against the run, it's unlikely that a Panthers ground attack that has averaged less than three yards per carry can pose much of a threat.
The one area where the Virginia Tech defense excels is at rushing the quarterback. The Hokies are second in the nation behind Pittsburgh in sacks on the season. Justus Reed, Jarrod Hewitt, and Amare Barno all have at least 4.5 sacks on the year. When the Virginia Tech rush is blocked, offenses have moved the ball in the air, throwing for 258 yards per game. With Pickett in charge, the Pittsburgh passing game has been strong, so if the quarterback is protected, Pitt receivers will make some plays.
The teams in the muddled middle of the ACC all look the same. They may have different strengths and weaknesses, but they are all on the same level. Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh fall into this class. But a couple of factors favor the Panthers in this game. First, they are home. In this 2020 season, it may not mean as much, but the Panthers are 3-1 at Heinz Field with their only loss coming to No. 2 Notre Dame. Plus, Pittsburgh's run defense is second-best in the country, and running the ball is what Tech wants to do. If the Hokies struggle to gain yardage on first down, much like as did late in the Miami game, they will have short drives that will end with Oscar Bradburn punting the ball back to Pitt. Pittsburgh won't run the ball either, but they never do. Pickett will find a rhythm with star freshman receiver Jordan Addison, and the Panthers will squeak out a win.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Virginia Tech 21
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— 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.