If there’s such a thing as a “critical” phase of the Pittsburgh Panthers’ 2016 football schedule, it’s about to begin. Pitt (3-2) begins a crucial five-game stretch Saturday when it hosts Atlantic Coast Conference rival Georgia Tech at Heinz Field. The next five weeks will also see the Panthers facing league rivals Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.), Clemson and Virginia.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back losses to Clemson and Miami and, like Pitt, is 3-2 on the season, as well as in a make-or-break point in its schedule. The Yellow Jackets are 1-2 in the ACC’s Coastal Division while Pitt is 0-1 in conference play.
Here are three storylines worth keeping an eye on for Pitt fans:
Can Pitt contain Tech’s run game?
Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense has befuddled a lot of teams over the years under coach Paul Johnson, with Pitt being no exception. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 370 yards against Pitt last year, although the Panthers won 31-28 on Chris Blewitt’s 56-yard field goal with just over a minute to play.
While Tech’s running game hasn’t been quite as prolific so far this season, it’s still averaging 226.8 rushing yards per game – which ranks fourth in the ACC – while freshman running back Dedrick Mills has shown plenty of promise. Mills has averaged 4.5 yards per carry while rushing for 370 yards through his team’s first five games.
Tech quarterback Justin Thomas is also a threat in the running game, but has cost his team with turnovers at times. Thomas lost two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns in last week’s 35-21 loss to Miami.
Will Jordan Whitehead play?
Pitt strong safety Jordan Whitehead, the ACC Rookie of the Year last season, sat out the Panthers’ win last week over Marshall. Whitehead started the Panthers’ first four games, but Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wouldn’t discuss why the sophomore didn’t play a single down against the Thundering Herd.
Whitehead, like many other Pitt recruits is a homegrown talent, who occasionally plays on offense, is second on the team with 31 tackles and has a fumble recovery, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble. While Narduzzi remains mum on Whitehead’s availability for this Saturday, all indications are that Whitehead will be back in the lineup against Tech.
Is any lead safe for Pitt?
If Pitt jumps out to a sizable lead early against Tech you may want to postpone your trip to the concession stand. The Panthers had a 27-0 lead last week against Marshall, but let the Thundering Herd close the gap to 3 points before closing out a 42-27 win. Pitt let a 13-point lead turn into a last-second loss to North Carolina the week before, and had another late meltdown two weeks ago in a last-second loss to Oklahoma State.