Fresh off their 37-16 thumping of Miami, the Hokies are set to travel to Heinz Field on Thursday evening for a key Coastal division clash with Pittsburgh. To get the Panthers' perspective on this potentially season-defining matchup, I spoke to Chas Rich, founder and fearless leader at Pitt Blather. You can find my answers to his questions here.
JC: We'll start with the most important question first: how f***ing awesome is James Conner?
CR: James Conner defies description at this point. I've run out of superlatives with regards to him.
JC: The Panthers have battled through some uncharacteristic struggles on defense this season, a surprise given the background and recent success of Pat Narduzzi. What's played into the defense's lackluster peformance, and how do you see Narduzzi turning it around?
CR: The secondary. That's the simple answer. The rest of it is a mixture of injuries and talent that doesn't match the scheme as well.
Narduzzi wants to play an attacking defense that defends the run and brings pressure up front. In his ideal scheme, the corners are on islands, and the help comes in pressuring the quarterback to throw too soon or take a sack.
That's the ideal. Here's the problem. Pitt has a good D-line, but not a great one. An injury in the very first game to Dewayne Hendrix at defensive end eliminated a starter. A few games later, linebacker Mike Caprara was hurt and has missed several games.
So that means the corners are alone and with little help coming. Avonte Maddox and Ryan Lewis aren't bad. But they aren't great, and they are on the smaller side. Which really hurts in one-on-one situations. Speaking of which, Maddox was hurt in the win over Georgia Tech -- further weakening the cornerback spot.
The additional problem is that Narduzzi has favored playing Terrish Webb at free safety because he is very good against the run. He is horrid, though, in pass defense. Virginia was targeting him in the first half of the last game almost exclusively. He left the game late in the first half with a (likely) concussion, and Reggie Mitchell took his place. Mitchell is much better against the pass and it showed in the second half, as Pitt shut down Virginia after allowing 28 points in the first half.
The hope from my view is that Pitt plays more Mitchell, due to the threat of the pass. Especially with Bucky Hodges still around.
JC: Offensively, the Panthers have put up some impressive numbers under senior quarterback Nathan Peterman. Conner and Quadree Henderson are the headliners at tailback, but who else should Hokies fans keep an eye on Thursday night? Do you see a shootout materializing at Heinz Field?
(Tyler Boyd is gone, right? Please tell me he's gone. Please.)
CR: Yes, it's true Tyler Boyd is no longer playing for Pitt.
Two names on offense to consider. Chawntez Moss is a freshman running back who has really played well in what is a very crowded backfield. He's a little shiftier and bumps it outside better than Conner.
The other is WR Jester Weah. Weah has great speed. Always has. The problem has been hands of stone. He dropped every pass last year. Literally. He had no pass receptions last year. It wasn't pretty, and if he had transferred, few fans would have complained about having an extra scholarship available.
This year, he has finally developed as a receiver. He's become a reliable target and can stretch the field when Pitt chooses to take a shot.
JC: From an outsider's perspective, it's been hard to get a handle on the Panthers this year. While Peterman and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada have clearly gelled well, the defense has been alarmingly bad at times (read, the first half against Virginia). With more than half the season in the books, where do you stand on how good this Pittsburgh team really is?
CR: Pitt has been maddeningly frustrating for us as well. They have come out in most games looking great and then had to hang on for dear life as the defense has been lit up, and the offense fizzled. And that was as much on Coach Narduzzi.
Again, it goes to how he wants to play (and still being too much of a DC at times rather than a HC) in the second half. Especially the 4th quarter, he has stated in the past that he wants to put the game in the hands of the defense. That means going very, very conservative on offense and leaving it all up to the defense.
Pitt barely got away with it against Penn State, and had it cost them in the losses to Oklahoma State and most painfully, to UNC.
You can look at it as Pitt losing only two games by a total of 8 points, but then Pitt has squeaked past PSU and GT (not to mention Marshall before a late score and pick-6 as the game ended to distort the final score).
I'm hopeful that the defense will play more in pass defense with the safeties. Especially against the Hokies, but I can't be totally sure.
JC: Time to put you on the spot: who wins Thursday night, and why?
CR: I remain an optimist. It will be a wild game with Pitt edging VT 44-40.