As is so often the case against the Pitt Panthers, job one for Bud Foster's defense will be stopping the run, and Pat Narduzzi knows it.
The second-year Pitt coach has developed an imposing run game this year, using RB James Conner, WR Quadree Henderson and a dominant offensive line to put up just over 239 yards per game, good for 20th in the nation.
Accordingly, they've made running the ball the overwhelming focus of the offense — they're 16th in the nation with roughly 47 attempts per game, a stark difference from their average of 23 passes per contest, a mark that puts them at 118th overall.
So if Narduzzi wants to keep Pitt's tradition of frustrating the Hokies at Heinz Field alive, he's well aware that he'll have to baffle Foster's bunch once more.
"The thing that makes it so concerning is they're the best defense we've faced this year," Narduzzi said Wednesday on a call with reporters. "That's what makes us tick is our run game, and if we don't get our run game going against this great defense, then we'll have problems."
Indeed, the Panthers are hardly imposing in the pass game, averaging just over 178 yards per game, but the Hokies are wary of taking anything for granted. Even the most dangerous rushing attacks aren't very effective without a credible play action or third down threat, and Justin Fuente isn't in any hurry to dismiss QB Nate Peterman just because he doesn't throw the ball very often.
"Some people label quarterbacks as game managers, and I don't believe in that," Fuente said Wednesday. "I think the young man we're about to play is a playmaker for them. Obviously it centers around running the football, but they've made big plays in the passing game."
The Panthers may not have many long passing plays overall (they rank toward the bottom of the country in pass completions over 10 and 20 yards, respectively) but Peterman does have his moments on third down. On third downs with seven to nine yards to go, he's 13 of 15 for 223 yards and two scores, with four completions of at least 15 years, two of at least 25, and a long of 74 yards.
Clearly, Peterman can make a play when it counts.
"Coming off play action they've got some really good schemes in obvious passing situations that can give you problems," Fuente said. "He's been judicious with the ball and kept the chains moving, which has allowed them to continue to run the football."
Narduzzi's noticed that improvement too, and credits Peterman's timely throws with helping keep defenses honest when it comes to defending the run.
"Really, the last couple weeks I've seen him grow a little bit more on third down," Narduzzi said.
"He's made some nice third down throws that we've needed him to make all year, and really the last couple weeks he's done that," Narduzzi said. "When you play a great team like Virginia Tech, one of the top defenses in the country, he's got to make some throws. He's got to put the ball right where it needs to be, and him being accurate with where he puts that ball, he's made good decisions, now he's got to make good decisions and really be accurate like he has the last couple weeks."
It helps that Pitt has been one of the best teams in the country in pass protection — the Panthers have only given up five sacks all year, tied for fifth in the country, making it no wonder that Foster called the line the best the Hokies have faced all year.
Tech's defense is coming off its most dominant performance of the season in that department after sacking Miami QB Brad Kaaya eight times last week (a feat Fuente credits to Foster's decision to "mix up our pressures, either only rushing four guys or bringing blitzes and trying to scheme rush the quarterback a little bit," among other things). Yet he doubts they'll be able to replicate those sorts of statistics against Pitt, unless they're able to dominate against the ground game.
"Moving forward throughout the year, if we can negate people's run game, then I think we will be able to get pressure," Fuente said. "It's a little bit easier when you know it's coming."
Narduzzi is still a bit worried about the Hokies' "great front seven" in that regard, but he does feel he'll have some room to maneuver on the outside. The Panthers have been increasingly working in sweeps and jet option plays with Henderson to great effect, and Narduzzi expects more of the same on Thursday.
"We're going to have to make some people miss," Narduzzi said. "We'll have some one-on-one opportunities on the edge, I think, with some of our stuff. But they're very athletic and they know what to do structurally in their defense, so it'll be a major challenge for sure."
Fuente isn't sure yet whether that fearsome front seven will be back to full strength — DEs Ken Ekanem and Vinny Mihota were listed as probable on this week's injury report, and DT Nigel Williams was once again questionable, but Fuente couldn't offer any clarity on their status Wednesday.
But no matter who's out there for the Hokies, Narduzzi is preparing for a very crowded box Thursday night.
"Count how close they are to the line of scrimmage," Narduzzi said. "They'll have 11 guys within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and that's what we've worked and practiced all week, and we're going to have to make some plays in some tight quarters."