Well... Pitt. Previewing Virginia Tech's Matchup with the Panthers

The Hokies host the Panthers — one of the hottest teams around — in a game that may make or break Tech's season.

[Mark Umansky]

Before the Hokies played Notre Dame, I noted the Irish offense would present a good schematic preview for the Pitt counterpart. Early on, the Hokies kept Notre Dame's underneath receivers from getting enough separation to exploit a weak Irish offensive line. However, with the game on the line, the Hokies couldn't take away the middle of the field.

The Panthers are very similar offensively to Notre Dame. But, personnel-wise, Pitt boasts some really special players. Kenny Pickett has always been a pain in the butt to defend because his mobility in the pocket extends plays. Slot receiver Jordan Addison (No. 3, 6-0, 175) has exploded onto the national scene, scoring touchdowns at a ridiculous clip (1.8 per game). Taysir Mack (No. 11, 6-2, 190) has improved as a reliable vertical threat, and Pickett has at least a half dozen other reliable receiving targets. After Virginia Tech couldn't find a pass rush against an uncertain Notre Dame offensive line, their odds don't seem good against a marginally better Pitt unit, a more mobile passing threat, and a receiver corps that excels at working open when the initial design of the play breaks down.

Can the Hokies slow down Pitt's passing game?

Dynamic offense isn't what comes to the mind for Virginia Tech fans when thinking about Pitt, but the 2021 rendition of Pat Narduzzi's squad has as good a short passing game as any team this year in college football. The Panthers average 52.4 points per game and their two worst offensive games put up 82 points combined. Pickett (No. 8) is having one of, if not the best, season of any quarterback in college football this season, completing 72% of his passes to the tune of 346.2 yards per game.

Pitt's numbers are shocking. Ten different receivers have over 5-or-more catches in 2021, with Addison leading the way with 29 (and eight touchdowns.) He's as good as any slot receiver I have watched this season in freezing the nickel defender on a corner route, and then breaking back into the slant. He has been spectacular in the red zone. His quickness, sharp route running, and ability to high point leading throws poses a matchup nightmare against Tech's safeties or Chamarri Conner. On this slant, Addison completely freezes safety Jaylen McCollough (No. 22).

Addison can also stretch the field, and he's an excellent route runner. He works long crossing routes stemming deep into space as well as any ACC receiver. He's arguably the best receiver the Hokies play all year, and Pickett does a great job of moving in the pocket to create throwing lanes for him to run into.

Pitt's offensive coordinator is former NFL coach Mark Whipple, and he does a great job of scheming Pitt's receivers against safeties and linebackers. Against man-to-man coverage, multiple receivers such as Shocky Jacques-Louis (No. 18, 6-0, 190) run crossing routes, setting subtle picks to get open and outrun safeties. Against a zone, gigantic tight end Lucas Krull (No. 7, 6-6, 260) or receiver Jared Wayne (No. 5, 6-3, 210) run stick routes against a linebacker who is too small to work back through their body on a quick throw. Pitt also incorporates their running backs into the attack. Pickett is comfortable throwing to any skill position player who steps on the field. Even if Jermaine Waller matches up against whoever Justin Hamilton feels is Pitt's most dangerous threat, Pickett will simply work the ball elsewhere.

If there is a solution to contain the Panthers, it is to go man across the board and blitz the house. Tennessee attempted to press Pitt outside and then send a variety of pressures. They had some success, sacking Pickett twice and moving him out of the pocket. Unfortunately for the Vols, Pickett broke down the press coverage by throwing a couple of fades for huge gains to Taysir Mack (No. 11, 6-2, 190).

On the above 1st-and-10, Tennessee plays the same press man with a single deep safety look that the Hokies used against North Carolina. The delayed blitz gets in Pickett's face, but Mack goes up and wins the battle on a perfectly thrown ball. Even though Pitt's offensive line struggles with blitz protections, Mack gives Pickett a down the field threat who can go up and win the ball even when Pickett is under heat. For the Hokies to have any kind of success, the blitz has to arrive quickly and keep Pickett in the pocket, and whoever is covering Mack better win the vast majority of 50/50 balls.

The Panthers do not run the football well, so expect the Hokies to defend the box with six defenders and hope that their front can at least hold serve inside.

Same Old Narduzzi on Defense

Tech fans are well acquainted with Narduzzi's defense. Similar to Bud Foster's old scheme, Narduzzi wants six or seven defenders forming a wall one yard in the opponent's backfield. Instead of slanting, Pitt's defensive line and linebacker groups attack straight ahead almost every snap, often leaving the defensive backs to fend for themselves.

Narduzzi rotates his linebackers heavily during the course of the game. Cam Bright (No. 38, 6-0, 220), Wendell Davis (No. 20, 6-2 240) and Sirvocea Dennis (No. 7, 6-1, 230) rotate at the two inside linebacker spots. While John Petrishen (No. 0, 6-1, 225) and Phil Campbell (No. 24, 6-1 220) split duties as a whip style linebacker flexed out to the passing strength of the offense. All six linebackers are aggressive and tackle really well when working downhill. Opposing offenses have found some success with quick screens and running back delays, as both inside backers have a tendency to come forward at the snap, and then delay rush the quarterback. They all tackle really well, especially when their defensive line keeps them clean.

Pitt doesn't have the same caliber of talent along the defensive line as last season, with Patrick Jones being drafted and Rashad Weaver signing as a free agent. Defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado (No. 87, 6-5, 260) and defensive tackle Keyshon Camp (No. 10, 6-4, 290) are bull rushing hulks up front. If Pitt's defensive line can't beat the initial block outright, they want to push and keep blockers engaged so their linebackers can run cleanly to the football. The one exception is defensive tackle Calijah Kancey (No. 8, 6-0, 270). Kancey is a smaller defensive tackle with quick twitch similar to Norell Pollard. He can be disruptive, but Tennessee also pushed him around. If the Hokies can establish any kind of inside running game, expect them to run over the right guard, right at Kancey.

I don't think Virginia Tech has the kind of passing attack that can exploit Pitt, but their weakness this season has been defending the deep pass. Tennessee's Joe Milton had at least a half a dozen wide open deep balls that he overthrew in the first half of Pitt's win in Knoxville, and strong safety Brandon Hill (No. 9, 5-11, 195) was burnt badly on Georgia Tech's first touchdown by freshman receiver Nate McCollum.

With Milton in the game, Tennessee took deep shot after deep shot against Pitt. Their wide receivers seemed to find open space often. On this vertical, free safety Erick Hallett (No. 31, 5-11, 195) is beaten by several steps.

On top of the deep ball issues, Western Michigan gave Pitt fits with quick RPO slants over the middle. This was one of close to a half dozen completions on this route concept over the first three series for the Broncos.

Pitt has vulnerabilities in that secondary. However, can the Hokies protect either long enough to give Braxton Burmeister, or whoever is behind center, windows to force the football down the field? I have my doubts. The Hokies have found ways to handle Pitt at home in the Justin Fuente era, but this senior-laden Pitt squad seems poised for a run at the ACC title. It may be a long Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg.

Comments

This is a depressing read, hopefully your trained eye is a bit off. Luckily we don't have to stay up too late to see the results this time...

I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction:
“I served in the United States Navy"

Generally speaking, the better I think an opponent is, the better VT plays. So we have that going for us.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

I have noticed something similar for the entirety of my fandom... we play better when we are supposed to lose

Danny is always open

We play up or down to our competition and win games we aren't favored to win and lose games we never should have lost. It's how you excel at mediocrity!

This is very true, however Pitt also has this mediocrity formula down pretty well. I grew up a quasi Pitt fan so I can confirm that every time you think they might be able to take a step forward they rush right back to the middle of the pack. So I'd say it's definitely in play that they get in their own way today.

undervalued comment. yeah we "play to competition" sort of. but how often do we get manhandled by an ok team. the "media" has no clue especially this year so determining "competition" is a fools errand as far as I can tell.

I'm still figuring this out.

I am not quite as bullish on Pickett as you. Idk if it's because I can't fully comprehend a guy taking such an enormous jump like this randomly after 3 years of starting at almost the exact same level and quality of QB play. He's clearly improved, but I think his stats are telling a story of a future regression to the mean rather than him finishing with the best stats in the country. For example, I've watched lots of games from both teams, and Kenny Pickett has not shown me anything close to what I've seen from Bryce Young this year, and Pitt's level of comp has been much lower.

That said, I am still very worried about them dinking and dunking down the field, with occasional shots to Mack and Addison for big plays. Those guys are definitely dudes that can make big plays.

Their defense, as you noted, can be got at. They got roasted by WMU, and likely would have 2 losses if they had started Hendon Hooker in the Tennessee game. Milton got 5 drives in a one score game. However, I am quite worried about our ability to attack them vertically with consistency. It reminds me a little bit of the 2019 UVA game where we knew that their D's weakness was the secondary, and that they could be attacked vertically with great success and we stubbornly attacked the strength of their defense instead for 3/4 of the game. That gives me less hope that we will take advantage of their weaknesses.

On top of the deep ball issues, Western Michigan gave Pitt fits with quick RPO slants over the middle.

This jumped off the screen at me and IMO is our best bet. With BB being all over the place when throwing the ball deep (+ ??? shoulder) and seemingly bailing way to fast frequently. I'd rather just completely simplify the offense vs Pitt and stop doing whatever over thinking shit we're doing. RPO, 1 read pass.

WMU exclusively ran this in the first two drives before attacking the outside and it worked really well, the LBs had to sink at the snap instead of press the line and everyone adjusted to inside leverage. WMU continued to hit a few nice fades and comebacks to the sideline when Pitt adjusted.

(add if applicable) /s

Just saying, whenever an opposing weakness is an obvious "best bet", our offense tends to do the exact opposite. Team has all of the starting DB's out with some backups playing injured, run the ball with some underneath passes thrown in.

We ran it once for 30 yards to Lofton....haven't seen it since

(add if applicable) /s

In my mind the only way we have a shot of winning this game is keeping the ball away from pitts offense that means long drives taking your time to get to the line of scrimmage, snapping it with less than 5 seconds on the clock, power running and a lot in the vertical pass game

ball control offense requires first downs. If we have more than 5 or 6 3-and-outs in this game we're going to get roasted. Especially if some of those 3-and-outs only take a few seconds off the clock (jet sweep into the boundary goes out of bounds to stop the clock, incomplete pass, pass complete for 3 yards out of bounds on the near side, punt - 00:46)

We need to keep the ball away from Pitt's offense to win. We need to be able to move the ball ourselves to do that. Given this coaching staff's track record, I don't have much confidence that we'll do that. We will repeatedly attack the strength of Pitt's defense and only attack it's weakness a handful of times. One of the times we attack their weakness the ball will be off target or dropped and then the coaches will say that it was a good play call but the players didn't execute ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Onward and upward

So...

The UNC game plan?

In the words of Bill Walton, VT "has absolutely no chance whatsoever." Well maybe not that bad, but I saw the rainy o-line turnstiles game at Lane in 2016. It was miserable enough for us fans but Motley had an even more miserable afternoon being sacked over and over. Pitt absolutely killed us in the trenches and while I see less of that in this game the Pitt O is much improved. I hope I am wrong.

I'm just glad I'll be spending the weekend in Blacksburg with friends I haven't seen in over a year. I'm pretty used to going to VT games and having a good time, except for the loss (both Chic Fil A kick-off games vs Bama, Boise St, '11 Sugar Bowl, a couple Clemson games, Military Bowl vs Cincy, Belk Bowl vs Kentucky, etc.). I don't expect the team to win this game, or even keep it close, frankly. I'll be surprised and even moderately impressed if we keep it within 2 scores. I'm just going to enjoy tailgating and hanging out with good folks. My FIL went to VT and lives in Roanoke. My wife has been going to games since she was an infant. I can't even count how many times we've said "Well, that was a fun trip, except for the loss". It's a family joke now.

Onward and upward

That is both touching and depressing.... But here is at least one streak I will be glad to see Coach Fuente break.

Hope you enjoy the weekend and we all get pleasantly surprised with a win.

Right there with you man. We're heading down in the morning. Wasn't even considering going until about 48 hours ago but the stars aligned and the Mrs and I are kid free and got tix in section 10. We might well get boat raced but I'm so looking forward to spending the day in my favorite place on earth with my Hokie fam on Homecoming. If we win, then great. If not then oh well, maybe we'll get em next year lol

"That kid you're talking to right there, I think he played his nuts off! And you can quote me on that shit!" -Bud Foster

O Line is the key in this one. Power running peppered with RPOS, eating the clock, keeping Pickett on the sidelines. If BB gets hurt or doesn't play, this could get really really ugly.

C. Clothier (CbusHokie)

watch us run OZR on 3/4 of our running plays

Onward and upward

It may be a long Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg.

Is this going to be as ugly as last year?

Last year was incredibly hard to watch.

To be the man you gotta beat the man!

At least with their bad running game, it probably won't be a 9 yards per carry game again.

So 9 yards per carry confirmed this year.

This will be a defining game for the year, pitt is a worthy opponent. Can't let this team push us around on worsham field. Gotta put Pickett on his ass, it all starts there. He has definitely increased his draft stock, you gotta make him think about his health

Very good read. I definitely think we should incorporate some RPO slants, not just this game, that should be something that's worked into the offense, the defense has to tackle well in open space and we can't play soft coverage 10 yards off every play worrying about the deep ball, Pickett is way too good if we do that he will pick us apart

Go for it

Pitt has vulnerabilities in that secondary.

Do we have any hope of exploiting that???

We've been saving our explosive passing game for Pitt.

(add if applicable) /s

11/32 134yds 1Td 1INT

Told you

(add if applicable) /s

Welp fam...get ready to hold on to your butts. And Go Hokies!

Reach for Excellence!

VT Football: It'll get after ya!

Proud Hokie since 2004.

My gut tells me that VT will win, mostly because Pitt is "supposed" to win. We seem to play better when that's the expected outcome. Maybe our player will use that as motivation to "execute"....

I've watched so much VT football since I was a freshman. This is one of those games where we will completely surprise our fanbase and coaches.

Win big and wonder where the hell this has been all season. Or....

Find a new way to lose.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

Thanks, French, for the awesome work as always. Not feeling good about this weekend.

Fuente has had at least one blowout loss each year he's been here.

2016 - Tenn
2017 - Miami
2018 - 😭
2019 - Duke
2020 - Pitt
2021 - ???

That Tennessee game was a heartbreaker but definitely wasn't a blowout loss.

Tyrod did it Mikey, Tyrod did it!!

45-24...

I know we fumbled it away but 21 is a blowout in my book

Had a dream that Hokies beat Pitt. I'm calling it now, Hokies win! All week I was betting on Pitt to win but after my dream I feel like the Hokies will win.

FIRST DOWN, HOKIES!

This maybe one of those "only in your dreams" type of things, but why not dream? Go HOKIES!!!!!

Ut Prosim Ad Dei Gloriam

With Milton in the game, Tennessee took deep shot after deep shot against Pitt. Their wide receivers seemed to find open space often.

Turner and Robinson aren't Tennessee level talent, our aren't coached up to it. And we don't have a QB to throw the ball to them. We took shots, but the throws were awful, the calls were awful, and wife receivers played awful.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

wife receivers

😳
something, something Phrasing

I don't know what a Hokie is, but God is one of them!