Chryst and company will face their first real road challenge of the 2013 season when they head to Blacksburg to face a Virginia Tech team eager for revenge. Last year’s win was a huge shock. Pitt was 0-2 with a loss to Youngstown State and Virginia Tech was 2-0 with a season opening victory over Georgia Tech. Even an eternal optimist like myself saw no chance of victory. Here we are a year later and while the Hokies are favored, no one would bat an eye if Pitt pulls off the win again.
The thing that will jump out at you when you look at VT: a really good defense. On defense, they’re 12th in points allowed, 5th in yards, and have more interceptions than anyone in college football (13). They haven’t been playing the School of the Blind either. They’ve racked up those stats with games against Alabama, Georgia Tech, and UNC. After last year’s embarrassment, you better believe they’re going to give 110% early on to prove last year was a fluke.
The offense, unlike the defense, leaves a lot to be desired. Logan Thomas is quite possibly the most overrated QB in college football. He opened up the season 5/26 for 59 yards and an interception against Alabama. Sure, it was against Alabama, but Colorado State’s QB completed 63% of his passes against them 2 weeks later.
There’s still talent at WR though. Junior Willie Byrn, freshman Josh Stanford, and sophomore Demitri Knowles are fully capable of big plays. Senior DJ Coles has 5 touchdowns on only 11 receptions. Byrn has been in the groove the past 5 games, averaging 4+ catches for 60 yards during that stretch. It may not seem like much in comparison to Street and Boyd, but keep in mind his senior QB has gone 5/26 in a game this season.
If VT is going to move the ball, it’ll be through Logan Thomas running and passing. That’s because it’s the only way they’ve moved the ball the past two weeks. Hokie RBs have had 30 carries for only 52 yards the past two weeks. UNC and GT aren’t powerhouse defenses either. UNC gave up 200+ yards on the ground to East Carolina and GT gave up 5 yards per carry to Duke’s RBs. They’ve only had one rushing touchdown from a RB the past four weeks. This is more on the ineptitude of VT’s OL and RBs than it is on good defensive play.
This does bode well for Pitt. If Logan Thomas the bad shows up (which he does more often than not) VT will struggle to score 20. Even when Thomas is on his A+ game, his stat line looks like this: 19/25 221 yards 1 TD. 16 carries 58 yards 1 TD. That was against GT when they scored a whopping 17 points. The passing game did get some momentum against UNC and Thomas had nearly 300 yards and 3 TDs. However, UNC’s defense is ranked 90th in points allowed and they have yet to beat an FBS school in 4 attempts, so I don’t think they’re a good barometer.
If I’m Matt House, I play my CBs tight on the WRs and inch the safeties up a little bit. Put faith in Pitts and Williams to not get beaten deep and force Logan Thomas to take short gains. If he has to play small ball, he most likely will screw up. Even if he succeeds wildly at small ball, we’ll see the GT game where they only scored 17. This does require DBs and LBs to make immediate tackles. If you’re playing tight, you leave a lot of open space if a guy shakes free. Tackling was a major issue against Duke.
On offense, things are a bit trickier. The Hokies D is no joke as you saw in the stats above. They have a phenomenal DL that loves to rush the passer and a secondary that forces interceptions better than anyone in the country. The team that had the most success against this defense was Marshall. Marshall had more yards and more offensive points than Alabama did in week 1. Unfortunately, Marshall’s offense is a no huddle type that involves quick passes, a mobile QB, and option runs. This is pretty much the exact opposite of a Chyrst offense.
In order for the offense to get anything done, the OL will have to play their best game of the season. VT’s DL controlled Alabama’s OL and gave two-time national champion AJ McCarron his lowest passer rating as a starting QB. RB TJ Yeldon was held under 4.5 yards per carry for only the third time in fifteen games. If your DL wins consistently, it makes most offenses useless. Your RBs won’t find lanes. The QB won’t find time to throw the ball. When he does, he isn’t stepping into throws and his passes won’t be on target. That’s how you lead the nation in interceptions.
If there’s a weakness in VT’s D, it actually is the secondary. They have true freshmen starting at CB and nickel CB. Both players have been outstanding, but haven’t been tested too thoroughly because of the DL’s pressure. If (and it’s a big if) Pitt’s OL can keep the pocket clean, they’re going to be susceptible to big plays. We’ve seen Tom Savage throw WRs open (like Street’s touchdown against Virginia: perfect coverage, still a TD) and that’s something their secondary hasn’t experienced yet.
All in all, this game comes down to two factors: Pitt’s OL and Logan Thomas. If the OL wins and Logan Thomas struggles, Pitt will come away victorious for the fifth time a row. If Logan Thomas has a good game and Pitt’s OL struggles, VT could win in a blowout. Anywhere inbetween? It’ll be a toss-up.
There is one edge Pitt has that I haven’t seen anyone discuss yet: time preparation advantage. When digging through results, I noticed that after a bye week or an extended time between games (ie Thursday game will give 2 extra prep days for the following Saturday), Pitt has done quite well.
In 2012, Chryst had more time to prepare than the opposition against VT and Rutgers. There was a bye before Syracuse, but they also had a bye week, so no advantage there. In 2013, there was a preparation advantage against New Mexico. Pitt’s record in those 3 games?
3-0. The victories over Rutgers and VT were easily the two best wins in 2012. This is a sign of very good coaching and preparation. When Chryst and the staff have more time to prepare than the opposition, they win. Not coincidentally, on short weeks they went 0-2 (Cinci and UConn).
I think this will lead to a few new wrinkles in the offense. We’ve seen how the Tyler Boyd sweep evolved. I bet we’ll see more screen passes and more of role players like Rachid Ibrahim on offense. The staff tried to get these things installed for Virginia, but execution failed. With an extra week to prepare, we’ll see some new things.
My gut tells me Pitt pulls off the upset and my head tells me they’ll come up short. Gut says Pitt 23 VT 17. Head says VT 27 Pitt 10. If the OL struggles and Logan Thomas plays like he has the past two games…you may want to switch to liquor because it could get ugly.
On a personal note, most of you know I recently moved and that my wife is pregnant. Thus I’ve been light on posts lately. The move was about as successful as a move can be (so far we’ve only noticed one broken plate) and I’m thankful things are finally settling down. We also found out some very awesome news:
WE’RE HAVING A BOY!!!!!!
That’s right. In fall of 2032 there will be a very informed fan named Calvin in the student section who has experienced every Pitt game (including time spent in utero) since FSU. That’s right, if Pitt never goes to another BBVA Compass Bowl, you can thank my spawn for breaking the streak.
Before anyone asks, he’s named after Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes.