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.