Coming off an impressive victory over a conference foe, the Hokies now head up north for an ACC road game in a venue they've traditionally struggled in — based on all those parameters, Tech fans could be forgiven for feeling a bit of deja vu this week.
Indeed, the Hokies' matchup with Pitt on Thursday has more than its fair share in common with the circumstances surrounding the team's disheartening loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The Hokies are 0-4 in Heinz Field, and even after a big win over Miami that produced another AP ranking, the team is all too familiar that there are no guarantees in that building.
"They've had our number the last few times, whether it's home or away," said Bud Foster. "We're in the mix for this division and this is gonna be a championship-caliber football game. If they wanna stay in the hunt, they've gotta win. If we wanna stay in the hunt, we need to win."
Many of the previous iterations of the Panthers gave Foster's defense fits on the ground, and he suspects that Pat Narduzzi's squad is aiming for a repeat of those results this time around. Considering that Pitt ranks 20th nationally in rushing offense averaging 239 yards per game, Foster expects that his defensive front will be tested by the Panthers this week.
"They're gonna give you a handful of plays from multiple formations," Foster said. "They're gonna be in unbalanced, they're gonna be in tackle overs, they make it four or five man sides, a little bit (Boston College in) nature that way. But from wanting to run the football, they've got big backs. Offensive line-wise, I think they're the best that we've seen to date and maybe the best we see all year."
Luckily, Foster expects that both Ken Ekanem and Nigel Willams can make their returns to the starting lineup after a week on the sidelines, and give the unit a veteran boost.
"Those guys, right now, have been out (at practice) and are dressed," Foster said. "We'll just take it day-by-day. We'll find out more after today's practice, more tomorrow. I'm expecting those guys, hopefully, to play."
The Panthers should offer plenty of resistance on the ground in their own right — Pitt ranks fifth in the nation by allowing just 96.5 yards per game — but Jerod Evans should have the opportunity to make some plays through the air. After all, Narduzzi's bunch ranks just 122nd overall, giving up 299 passing yards per game.
"They are a heavy run-stop team," Evans said. "They will force you to throw on man-to-man coverage. I would say a little bit like Boston College where they force you to throw the ball, which I have no problem doing. They are very heavy run-stop defense and they're gonna force you to throw that ball."
But even with those lackluster numbers, Justin Fuente isn't willing to write off Pitt's secondary. After playing several high-powered passing attacks to start the season, Fuente wouldn't be surprised if the Panthers prove to be more adept defending the pass than their stats might suggest.
"They've played a couple of teams that I would say are very, very good at throwing the football," Fuente said. "North Carolina, Oklahoma State is very good on the outside. May distort those numbers a little bit, I don't know, but watching the film, I thought those guys are really, really talented. It'll be a big challenge."
ON IF THERE'S ANY CERTAIN THINGS HE LOOKS AT PRE-SNAP DEPENDING ON HOW THE DEFENSE LINES UP:
"We watch a lot of film. Try to look at tendencies and all that, as far as coverages, they try to throw different things at you different plays 'cause they go off tendencies as well. Trips, they try to play it a certain way, if we're just two-by-two, they try to look at it a certain way. If we've got three and two running backs in the backfield, they try to play it a certain way. It's different wrinkles they try to throw at us and vice versa. It's different things, blitz wise, that they try to throw. I just look at my reads that I'm looking at on each and every play and go from there."
ON HOW MUCH EASIER IT MAKES HIS JOB WHEN THE FRONT FOUR ARE GETTING PRESSURE:
"That's a tremendous thing for us, just having the front four cause havoc. It's just pressuring the quarterback and making them throw into bad coverage. Defensive backs, we're depending on d-line the whole time. I can't ask for better guys than them."
ON WHAT HAPPENED ON THE BLOWN COVERAGES:
"It was different things. We've talked with the coaches about it and they ended up fixing everything and we ended up coming out with the win. That's the biggest thing about it."
ON IF THE TEAM FEELS THEY HAVE TO DEFEND THEIR RANKING THIS WEEK:
"Of course we like being in the top 25, but at the end of the day we just wanna win the football game. Regardless if we're in the top 25 or if we're not ranked at all, we just wanna go out and play Virginia Tech football and go 1-0 each week."
ON IF HIS PICK OF MIAMI QB BRAD KAAYA WAS HIS BEST INTERCEPTION TO DATE:
"I like to think so. That's a nice little interception. Like he said earlier, I couldn't do it without the d-line going back there, pressuring the quarterback, and I was just right there at the right time...It was just great timing pretty much."
ON HOW HE SPENT HIS SATURDAY OFF:
"We came and watched a little bit of film and then after we watched film, I just pretty much rested for the rest of the day. Hung out with a couple of my friends, my brother, we just had a good time watching football pretty much. We don't usually have those type of days, but that was a good day."
ON HOW HIS BODY IS HOLDING UP:
"I'm feeling pretty well. I usually get in the ice tub sometimes to try and get my body back. The other guys, we always talk, we have to train like pros, pretty much. We've gotta work hard during practice, but after practice we have to ice up in the ice tube. Make sure your body's at 100 percent all the time."
ON THE DIFFERENCE IN THE RUNNING GAME LAST WEEK:
"The offensive line did a great job up front and they allowed me to see some creases. I was running with a lot of confidence. The hogs just did a great job up front of opening up holes."
ON HOW SATISFYING THE WIN WAS AFTER A COUPLE OF HARDER WEEKS IN THE RUNNING GAME:
"I'm just worried about going 1-0 every week and just trying to keep getting better. Just trying to improve my skills every day. Every carry I get, I'm trying to capitalize on those carries. Just trying to continue to get better and work on those skills."
ON IF THE RUNNING BACKS ARE STARTING TO SEE BETTER IN THE NEW OFFENSE:
"This offense is — the running scheme and everything is blocked a lot differently. You've just gotta be a lot more patient in this offense to see things develop. I'm just being a lot more patient with my eyes and everything and just trusting what I see out there."
ON HIS EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF THE PITT DEFENSE:
"They're really good up front. Their front seven is really good. Gonna have one-on-one opportunities with the safeties and things like that. It's gonna be important for me to make those guys miss to create big runs. They're really good on film. They have a really good defense. It's gonna be exciting playing against those guys, that's for sure."
ON HIS TAKE ON EVANS' PANCAKE BLOCK:
"I think he should be on the line somewhere. It was an awesome block that he delivered for me. He did a great job letting me get outside on one of my runs. He pancaked the guy, too, so that was pretty nice."
ON THE CAMARADERIE AMONG THE RUNNING BACKS:
"It's good competition. We keep each other humble. Every day is a grind. We try to go out there and compete every day. That's good competition, that's what the team needs, that's what our room needs. We're just trying to get better and get ready for Pitt and get ready to go 1-0 this week."
ON IF HE COULD THROW A PASS THIS YEAR SINCE HE WAS A HIGH SCHOOL QUARTERBACK:
"I don't know. If that time comes, that time comes. If it's in the game plan, I'll capitalize on it. If not, I know Sam (Rogers) can get it done as well."
ON HOW MUCH HE'S HEARD ABOUT THE STRUGGLES OF VIRGINIA TECH IN HEINZ FIELD:
"It doesn't mean anything. This is a totally different team than what we were in the past. I feel like we have guys that really care about what they're doing here, and we're just gonna prepare as hard as we can and get ready to win a ballgame."
ON IF HE'S EVER HAD A VENUE THAT HE DIDN'T LIKE OR DIDN'T PLAY WELL IN:
"No, I just feel like you've gotta treat every opponent the same and prepare as hard as you can against every opponent."
"Obviously pleased with our performance last week. We had a great home field advantage. Our fans were fantastic. It was a memorable first Thursday night game in Lane Stadium for me, and I do want to make sure I thank everybody for coming out. They played a huge role in that football game. As we turn the page, we have another big challenge in front of us going on the road to Pitt. I know they'll have an exciting environment. Pitt was off last week, so that poses another challenge. I know they'll be rested and ready to play. This is a very good Pitt football team. Obviously they can run the ball and have done a really good job of stopping the run. They've got a dynamic, exciting returner. Punt return game and kickoff return game has aided in their success. We've got a tremendous challenge in trying to negate that. But our kids are looking forward to the challenge. We've had some good prep-time. Obviously we've got practice again today to get ready for Thursday."
ON WHAT HE'S SEEN FROM THE PITT DEFENSE:
"It starts with stopping the run. I think that's obvious when you watch the film. They do a really, really good job. They've played a couple of teams that I would say are very, very good at throwing the football. North Carolina, Oklahoma State is very good on the outside. May distort those numbers a little bit, I don't know, but watching the film, I thought those guys are really, really talented. It'll be a big challenge. You can tell the makeup of their team starts with running the football and stopping the run, and they've been successful at that. That's why they're winning ballgames."
ON HOW THE JAMES CONNER STORY RESONATES WITH HIM:
"Fantastic story. I don't know the young man, but my impression of him — and from everything I've read — is a fantastic individual that's obviously overcome some huge hurdles. It's nice in college athletics when — obviously you don't want anybody to have to go through what he's gone through — when those stories get highlighted and the character and the integrity and the toughness that he's existed is kind of shown on full view, it gives the rest of us an opportunity to appreciate some of the people that are involved in this game. To me, you always expect your opponent, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for individuals who have gone through things like that. A unique situation, but certainly a feel-good story."
ON HOW IMPORTANT IT IS HAVING A KICKER LIKE JOEY SLYE THAT CAN KICK TOUCHBACKS TO NEGATE THE RETURN GAME:
"Well sure, but you never know going into the game if the wind's gonna be blowing, if they're gonna be able to return them. The key when you have a kicker like Joey is not getting the coverage team to relax and assume the ball's gonna go out of the end zone. But any time you have a chance to take the ball out of a dangerous returner's hands — probably the same as on defense with a wide receiver — any time you have a chance to take the ball out of their hands, that's a good thing for us. In the same respect, you've gotta make sure that you don't take those things for granted or assume that they're gonna happen, because that can certainly bite you."
ON HOW BAD THEY WANTED TO HIT THE TRICK PLAY WITH ROGERS:
"We wanna hit all of them. First of all, we didn't do it just to do it. We don't do things like that. If we feel like there's something like that that we may be able to take advantage of and we can execute — we've got some confidence in executing — then we'll certainly do that. On a personal note that has nothing to do with the game, it was kind of cool that Sam got to throw one because he does so many things, that don't show up in the statistical breakdown, to help this team win. It was pretty cool. His little wry grin that he had after it was worth the price of admission."
ON WHAT CLICKED IN THE RUNNING GAME THIS WEEK:
"I would say part of it was the way we're being played allowed us to run the ball a little more effectively. I think Travon ran as hard as I've seen him run since I've been here. (That) certainly helped things out. A little bit of it has to do with how we're being played, little bit of that has to do with how we were executing, (and) a little of it has to do with how well our defense played to continue to let us go out there and continue to run the football throughout the game."
ON THE CAUSE OF THE COVERAGE BREAKDOWNS AND HOW HARD THEY ARE TO CORRECT:
"There's a litany of things that go into the opposing team having a guy open or making a big play throwing the football. Part of it is technique-oriented, part of it is communication-oriented, some of it is they have coaches and players on scholarship as well and sometimes they make plays. I'd say it's a little bit of everything."
ON HOW HE HAS ASSESSED THE TEAM'S ROAD MENTALITY THUS FAR:
"I think we're developing our road mentality. We had a bunch of people there at North Carolina, Hokies, and the rain and weather probably contributed to the atmosphere in terms of — I'm assuming that they would have had more people there had it been 72 and partly cloudy. That won't be the case this week. It takes a little bit of extra focus, a little bit extra mental toughness, little bit extra determination to get prepared to go into a truly hostile environment and win a ballgame. That's the challenge that's in front of us."
ON AFTER THE PANCAKE BLOCK BY EVANS IF HE'LL SEE SOME PLAYS AT FULLBACK OR GUARD THIS WEEK:
ON WHAT HE SAID TO EVANS AFTER THE BLOCK AND IF HE WANTS HIS QBS TO THROW BLOCKS LIKE THAT ON A REGULAR BASIS:
"I don't think he was putting himself in harm's way. It's not like he was taking on a 330-pound defensive tackle. Sometimes you find yourself in those situations and you've gotta find a way to get the job done, whether that's squaring a guy up or just shielding a guy off. Sometimes the ball cuts back and you find yourself at the point of attack. We expect our guys, across the board, to play to the whistle and help us try to win the game."
ON IF THERE'S ANY CHIP ON THE SHOULDER OF THE TEAM HAVING NEVER WON AT HEINZ FIELD:
"I don't think so. It's not something that we've addressed. I know that Pitt has been very good and we haven't — for whatever reason, whether it was there or here, quite honestly — had a tremendous amount of success in recent history. That's not something that we dwell on. We talk about this game, kind of talked a little bit about game-to-game momentum and previous results have no bearing on future outcomes. That's the way we're approaching this one."
ON WHAT WOODY BARON IS LIKE AROUND THE TEAM AND IF THERE'S ANOTHER DEFENSIVE PLAYER WHO'S BEEN AS CONSISTENT OF BARON:
"I'm just glad to see other people struggle with him (not talking) as well. He's obviously talented, but he's an intelligent football player. He understands things. He is not the most vocal guy, but he brings it every single day. He's an incredibly nice young man. Whether he's hanging out with kids after practice, he's just a pleasure to be around and a very good football player. A fine example to young people in my estimation. One that I'm really fortunate to get to coach."
ON THE PLAY OF THE FRONT FOUR AND MORE SPECIFICALLY BARON:
"I was concerned, actually, going in, because we were nicked up a little bit. We needed a couple guys to step up and all those guys played extremely hard. They did a great job with their gap fits and proper leverage. Woody, right now, is playing as well as any — I told him that in front of the group — he's playing as well as any defensive linemen that we've had here in my tenure as a coordinator. Just very active, very physical at the point of attack, technique and fundamental-wise, he is just very sound fundamentally. He can recognize playside, and back-side right now and get off a block. Really works at it as far as pass rush. This is a guy, I told the young kids, he's a great guy to look at and pattern yourself after. Has a lot of abilities. I wish we could keep him around for another year. He's playing really, really well. He was a big time factor in that game. In the pass rush, I thought Miami, their interior three was their strength, he did a great job one-on-one in the run game and in the pass game."
ON HOW THE JAMES CONNER STORY RESONATES WITH HIM:
"Number one, it's a tremendous story. What he's been through, what he's fought through personally, makes a statement about who he is as far as his character and his motivation to beat this thing. This game puts you in a position to be mentally tough and physically tough to be able to handle those situations that come up. He's handled it extremely well. I've had the utmost respect for him. As a player, you see a guy that, to a degree, has a second chance and he's playing that way. Very physical, very dynamic football player. My hat's off to him for what he's battled through to get back to this point. Like I said, I think it says something about him and what he's all about. I think the team's feeding off of that, too. Obviously he's one of their captains. It's a great story and it's great lesson for all of us to battle through some adversity. Some times are good, sometimes it's bad, but unless you give yourself a chance — that's what he's done, he's giving himself his chance by his attitude and his demeanor and he was gonna beat this thing. He's done a great job with that."
ON WHAT HE REMEMBERS ABOUT BARON'S RECRUITMENT:
"Charlie Wiles found him. Obviously Jim contacted us about Woody. A guy a little bit undersized, but extremely athletic. We felt like he would be a tackle. He's finally at the weight we wanted him to probably be at now. The last couple of years he's been in that 260-270-pound range. He's around 280-pounds and holding that pretty well right now. But yeah, we saw the same guy that we're getting right now. A guy that's motivated, disciplined guy, just good character and great work ethic and all those things that you see. Just (a) take care of business guy. He's a great leader for us. Our seniors, we don't have many, he's one of the few and all those guys have been dynamic leaders for us. Ken (Ekanem) and Nigel (Williams) hung in there and coach (Fuente) had them on the field just to be around because they're steady guys, they're solid guys, and they're good with the young kids."
ON THE ISSUES ON THE COVERAGE BREAKDOWNS AND HOW TO CORRECT THEM:
"The first one was a double move, which, that's gonna happen sometimes. The second one was just a busted coverage. We're playing man and they ran a little quick exchange and unless we make a communication, you don't come off. Terrell came off. It's pretty simple. It's not like it's a dynamic adjustment we have to make. Just cover your man. If we do that, we're gonna be in good shape. A double move I can handle. When you just turn guys loose, it's disappointing, but it's correctable. And Terrell — it's important to him — he was disappointed in himself about that."
ON IF THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT HEINZ FIELD THAT BAFFLES THE HOKIES HISTORICALLY:
"I don't think it's Heinz Field. I think it has everything to do with Pitt. They've played extremely well when we've gone up there and played. We need to go play. It's not Heinz Field. We've got the utmost respect for Pitt and we've had some great games with those guys. They've had our number the last few times, whether it's home or away. We need to go play and be sharp and be focused. That kind of comes back to us. It's gonna be a game. We're in the mix for this division and this is gonna be a championship-caliber football game. If they wanna stay in the hunt, they've gotta win. If we wanna stay in the hunt, we need to win. As these games move forward, it's been a couple years since we've been in this position, but these games get more and more important as we move forward in the season. It's not Heinz Field. It's the Pitt Panthers. We just need to go up there and be focused and be prepared and I think we will be this time."
ON IF THEY REMIND HIM OF AN OLD-SCHOOL BOSTON COLLEGE:
"They wanna run the football. They're gonna give you a handful of plays from multiple formations. They're gonna be in unbalanced, they're gonna be in tackle overs, they make it four or five man sides, a little bit BC nature that way. But from wanting to run the football? Yeah, they've got big backs. Offensive line-wise, I think they're the best that we've seen to date and maybe the best we see all year. Talked to a couple of other coaches who have played against them. They thought they were good going in and they thought they were better after they played them. They've traditionally had a great offensive line. We've got great respect for them. Their tight end is an all-league player. The (Nathan) Peterman kid, if you load up the box too much, he's a competitive guy, he's got a live arm, he's got a couple of dynamic receivers in (Quadree Henderson) and (Jester Weah) — to me, they're playmaking guys. They get the ball to (Henderson) in a lot of different ways in speed sweeps and things like that. They're gonna want to be physical inside but then try to stretch you on the perimeter. And also try to split your defense in a lot of ways, particularly in the run game. That's where they're a little bit different than BC. But being physical at the point of attack, yeah, they very much remind me of those teams. Pitt's the same way over the years. Good offensive linemen, good, big backs, and they want to play physical football. We've gotta do a great job — like we talked last week going into the Miami game — of getting downhill, securing our gaps, and hopefully win the line of scrimmage. It's gonna be a challenge for us."
ON WHAT HE THINKS OF THE CITY OF PITTSBURGH:
"Well, I've never really been there other than going to a football game. I like going to places. I've been to Boston, I've been to Chicago. I'm sure Pittsburgh is a fun town and good food and great history. I'm a big baseball fan. I'd love to go to a Pirates game. Maybe I will one day when the Cardinals go up there and play them. I think it's like your typical cities, it's a pretty cool place. You talk steel mill and all of that, that's what Pitt's been known for is their workmanlike approach over the years. You always heard Penn State and you had Pitt. Pitt was the team, when I was going up — with Tony Dorsett and all the o-linemen they had there and the quarterbacks and the defense with Hugh Green — they were the team when I was growing up. Winning national championships and playing for national championships. But they're very much a workman-like, to me, football program. They're gonna bring the lunchpail every day themselves. I'm sure they like that mindset as well of being that steel mill, hard nosed, workmanlike community."
ON MAKING HIS FIRST CAREER START:
"It felt really good. The anticipation to start was crazy. I had a lot of emotion going into the game, of course, with my situation. I just played with a lot of emotion and a lot of passion."
ON HOW HARD LAST WEEK WAS:
"It was definitely hard. I found out that my grandmother had passed the day after the Syracuse game. We had weightlifting, so I'm going to weightlifting in tears. The guys really comforted me during that time. And then flying back, I was really tired, coming back, I was really tired. I had time to prepare a little bit after the funeral. Tried to watch as much film as I could and try to find any little thing that I could on the tackle that I could go off of and beat them with. On that sack — I promised my grandmother that I would try to get a sack. I didn't let her down."
ON HOW COMFORTING THE TEAMMATES WERE:
"They did a lot, especially during the game. They were like, 'You know who this is for and each and every game, just dedicate it to your grandmother.'"
ON HOW THE DEFENSIVE LINE GROUP IS COMING TOGETHER:
"The amount of work that we put in from January to now, we've been working hard every day to try and get better every day. The guys that are hurt, they're still out there every day trying to get better and better."
ON THE CHALLENGE OF THE PITT OFFENSIVE LINE:
"Like I said, keep working hard. Any little detail that we can find, any weakness that we can find, we attack the weakness. That's about it really. I'm prepared for the challenge."
ON IF HE PUT THE GAME ON HIS SHOULDERS WHEN VINNY MIHOTA WENT OUT IN THE SECOND QUARTER:
"Kind of. It was amazing man. I'm honestly — we had to do what we had to do. Can't let one person get us down. Just had to keep going. I stepped up, Ricky Walker stepped up, Tim Settle stepped up. Gotta keep moving."
ON IF IT WAS A SCHEMATIC ISSUE OR IF IT WAS HIS MOTOR THAT PRODUCED SUCH A BIG NIGHT:
"I think it was us on defense knowing that we were short handed and that we had to have a great game defensively. I was just the recipient of a couple plays. I was fortunate to get in on them, but it really could have been any of us."
ON IF HE'S SEEN ANY FILM ON PITT:
"I've looked at Pittsburgh a couple of their games. Actually seen them play through the season as we looked at UNC and a couple of other schools. You know what you're getting with Pittsburgh just like Miami. Talented team, very big up front, they wanna run the ball. Traditional squad."
ON IF THERE'S SOMETHING UNIQUE ABOUT THE PITT LINE THAT MAKES THEM SO GOOD:
"We've played these guys a couple of times now. Like I said, you know what you're getting. This team doesn't really wanna sugarcoat anything. They wanna run the ball. You turn on the film and that's pretty evident."
ON IF THERE'S ANYTHING TO THE STRUGGLES AT HEINZ FIELD:
"I've only played there once. I'm not really sure about the historical struggles. But what we do is try to just forget all of that, forget anything that's going on after the game or that has happened prior to the game, and we're just trying to do our best preparing to get a win."
ON IF HE HAS A PREFERENCE OF FACING AN OFFENSE LIKE PITT VS. A SPREAD OFFENSE:
"I think the great thing about the ACC is that you have a combination of so many different offenses. Really, you have to prepare for pretty much a different one every week. I think we just approach it trying to respect our opponent and to prepare to combat whatever offense that might be."
ON IF THE TEAM FEELS THEY HAVE TO DEFEND THEIR RANKING THIS WEEK:
"We're so focused on the next opponent, the rankings don't really make their way into the locker room. I don't think this week is gonna be very much different. We're just trying to beat a very good Pittsburgh team. That's where our mind is at."