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USA Today
Game Preview:
Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
by Will Stewart,, 11/1/01
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Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
Saturday, November 3rd, 2001, noon
ESPN+/Big East Regional
Click here for a list of stations showing the game

Before the season started, this game worried Hokie fans. After the season started, it didn't. Now it does again.

This was the year Pittsburgh was poised to reach unprecedented heights in the Big East. With ten starters returning on a solid defense and Biletnikoff Award winner Antonio Bryant coming back on offense with the experienced David Priestley at quarterback, it was thought by many that the Panthers would finish at least third in the Big East.

With Miami and Virginia Tech both visiting Pittsburgh, the idea of the Panthers knocking one of those teams off and finishing second in the league, or higher, wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Head coach Walt Harris had resisted overtures from Ohio State to remain at Pitt, and the Panthers were ready to break the seal on a brand-new stadium (Heinz Field) that they were going to share with the Steelers. These were heady times for the Pitt football program.

Or so everyone thought. Pittsburgh's shot at glory this season has turned into a nightmare. Their quarterback play has been disappointing, their defense has actually slipped instead of improving, and Bryant has proven to be a moody, unproductive player, one who is more likely to land in the newspapers for his behavior than in an end zone with a touchdown pass. At this point, carrying around a 2-5 record, the Panthers are looking at a season without a bowl bid, not the Big East championship they had aspired to.

Pittsburgh Fast Facts

Seven games into the season, Pittsburgh is a disappointing 2-5, including just 1-3 in the Big East. In an embarrassing five-game losing streak that spanned September and October, they were the victims of a humiliating upset home loss to South Florida, followed by four straight hammer jobs by scores like 42-10 and 45-7. The Panthers only recently righted the ship with a 33-7 victory over Temple, their first win over a Division 1-A opponent this season. Here's a look at their season thus far:

Date Venue Result
Sept. 1 home Pittsburgh 31, ETSU 0
Sept. 8 home South Florida 35, Pittsburgh 26
Sept. 27 home Miami (Fla.) 43, Pittsburgh 21
Oct. 6 away Notre Dame 24, Pittsburgh 7
Oct. 13 home Syracuse 42, Pittsburgh 10
Oct. 20 away Boston College 45, Pittsburgh 7
Oct. 27 away Pittsburgh 33, Temple 7

Last season, Pittsburgh was 7-4 in the regular season, including a 4-3 mark in the Big East. They went to the Bowl, where they absorbed the Big East's only bowl loss last season, 37-29 at the hands of Iowa State. After starting last season 5-1, the Panthers are now 4-9 in their last 13 games with victories over Temple, WVU, 1-AA ETSU, and Temple again.

Pittsburgh was ranked preseason #28 by Athlon Magazine this year and was picked by the Big East media to finish third in the conference this season.

Head Coach: Walt Harris is in his fifth year as head coach at Pittsburgh and his eighth year as a head coach overall. His Pittsburgh record is 22-31, and he's 33-55 overall. He has been coaching since 1971. Prior to taking the Pittsburgh job in December of 1996, he was the quarterbacks coach at Ohio State for two years. He was head coach at Pacific (his alma mater) from 1989-1991, and in addition to his stint at Ohio State, he has had assistant coaching jobs at Pacific, Cal, Air Force, Michigan State, Illinois, Tennessee, and the New York Jets.

The Last Time: The Hokies came from behind to beat Pittsburgh 37-34 on Carter Warley's 27 yard field goal with 16 seconds left. Michael Vick went down with an injury late in the first half, and backup QB Dave Meyer took over the controls for the second half. By the time Meyer got his game legs under him, Pittsburgh had turned a 20-20 half time tie into a 34-27 lead going into the fourth quarter.

The Hokies outscored Pittsburgh 10-0 in the fourth quarter for the win, including a 13-play, 75-yard drive that led to Warley's field goal. For the game, the Panthers riddled Tech's pass defense for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Starting Pitt QB John Turman looked like NFL material, delivering crisp pass after crisp pass, and Bryant and fellow receiver Latef Grim had 12 catches for 233 yards and all 4 touchdowns between them.

Depth Chart: The Panthers are currently starting 8 players on defense who started last year, with the returning starters being evenly distributed along the line, linebackers, and defensive backs. On offense, they only have five returning starters from last year, but Priestley, with his extensive game experience (including over 400 yards passing against Tech in the 1999 game), counts as a sixth returning starter. The Panthers start a true freshman at running back (Raymond Kirkley), and backup QB Rod Rutherford gets a lot of snaps, but mostly in running situations (he is Pitt's second leading rusher behind Kirkley).

Best Offensive Players: Believe it or not, Pitt's best offensive player isn't Bryant, who was slowed by an ankle injury early in the season and has been quick to lose his focus and show his frustration. Bryant (20 receptions, 267 yards, 2 TD's) isn't even Pitt's most productive receiver -- R.J. English (24 catches, 458 yards, 3 TD's) is. At the tailback position, Kirkley gets the large majority of the carries and has 103 rushing attempts for 408 yards and 3 TD's. Quarterback David Priestley has been average: 100-171 (58.5%), 1135 yards, with a 7-7 TD/INT ratio. When backup QB Rod Rutherford throws, the numbers drop off dramatically: 18-55 for 246 yards, 1 TD, and 3 INT's. Rutherford is tall, lanky, and athletic, and he comes in mainly to run the ball (54 rushes, 221 yards, 5 TD's).

Best Defensive Players: Free safety Ramon Walker leads the team in tackles by a wide margin with 94. Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle called him one of the best safeties in the country. Walker has won the coaching staff's defensive player of the game award 4 times this season. Behind him is linebacker Gerald Hayes with 72 tackles, and a team-leading 3.5 sacks. Including Hayes, Pitt has five players with 2.5-3.5 sacks, so their 22 team sacks are distributed around, with 9 of the sacks coming from their linemen.

Special Teams: Sophomore punter Andy Lee is averaging 42.8 yards per punt, and senior placekicker Nick Lotz is 6-10 on field goals for the season, with a long of 37 yards. Lotz is 5-5 inside 30 yards, but just 1-5 from 30 yards and beyond.

Offensive Philosophy: Pittsburgh ran some no-huddle in the early part of their schedule and wound up confusing their quarterbacks and throwing their offense into disarray. They finally went back to their old pro-style offense against Temple, and the results were immediate and beneficial, as they put up 33 points (in the three prior games to Temple, they had only scored 24 total points).

Defensive Philosophy: Pittsburgh's defense is an 8-man front similar to Tech's, and they attack from all over the field. The problem is, they don't have as much talent as Tech does. The Pitt defense finished 29th in the country last year (325 yards per game), but has mysteriously slid to 46th (346 yards per game) this year without playing a particularly challenging schedule.

Statistical Rankings of Note:  This game pits VT's #18 rushing offense (213 yards per game) against Pitt's 59th-ranked rushing defense (152 yards per game). But behind those numbers, VT has slipped from previously being in the top 10, and opponents have started to key on Tech's running game and slow it down, so the mismatch may not be there as statistics would have you believe.

But at the same time, Pitt's rush defense ranking has been significantly bolstered by a great performance against Temple, when they used 9 sacks to hold the Owls to (-36) yards rushing for the game, a Big East record. It's worth noting that the Hokies have rushed for a combined total of 578 yards in the last two games against Pittsburgh.

The Hokies are still #1 in the country in total defense (190 yards per game), scoring defense (9.8 points per game), and pass efficiency defense. After giving up 168 yards rushing to Syracuse, Tech has fallen to #3 in rushing defense at 60.4 yards per game.

Offensively, Pitt is languishing. They're 98th in the country in rushing offense at 103 yards per game, 72nd in passing offense (201 yards per game) and 101st in total offense (304 yards per game).

The Lowdown

Throw the records and rankings out the window -- and I rarely say that. Pittsburgh always plays the Hokies tough, except for the first two meetings in 1993 and 1994, which the Hokies won by a combined score of 108-28. Despite Pitt's proclivity for putting Hokie fans in danger of cardiac arrest, the Hokies own a 7-1-0 advantage in the series, which began with that 1993 game (a 63-21 Tech victory).

Prior to last week's games, it appeared that the Hokies would steamroll the Panthers. Pittsburgh was floundering and Tech was in a groove.

Well, last week, Pittsburgh was in a groove, and Tech was floundering. Now it's hard to say what will happen this weekend, because it's possible that the Panthers might have "found themselves," and it's certain that Syracuse wrote the book on how to beat the Hokies -- blitz the QB and use a ball-control offense.

Having said that, ball control offense is not Pittsburgh's forte. Oh, they can blitz, and they will. Look for Grant Noel and the Tech offense to get a healthy dose of 5-to-8 man rushes, because last year the Panthers came on strong (and knocked Vick out doing it).

But it's hard to imagine Pitt's anemic rushing attack mustering much yardage against the Hokies ... then again, it was tough to imagine Syracuse winning in Blacksburg.

Expect Pittsburgh to launch an aerial assault on offense and to send in the troops on defense. How well the Hokies weather both attacks (sorry for the war metaphors) will determine if Tech comes out of Heinz Field with a W or a program-shaking, message-board melting L.

The Hokies will continue to pound away with the ground game, but it's this writer's opinion that it's time to stop mashing the ball up the middle so much and to start getting Kevin Jones some room to work with more toss sweeps (by the way, a frequent site visitor reminded me via email that this is the first of two straight games in Jones's home state of Pennsylvania, so he'll be especially primed to come up big). The passing game isn't likely to change -- you should see the same passes to the flat and flanker screens that the Hokies have used so often.


So far this season, two long-standing Tech traditions have been broken. Number one, the Hokies absolutely throttled WVU in Morgantown, and number two, Tech dropped a home game to Syracuse. When that sort of thing starts happening, predicting games gets very tough.

The wild card isn't so much Tech -- nothing much changes for the Hokies from game to game -- as it is Pittsburgh. The Panthers have been all over the map this season, and it's hard to say if the Temple game was just an anomaly, or if they're about to turn the rest of their season around.

So I admit it, call this prediction a total shot in the dark, because I have no idea what's going to unfold Saturday, as far as the score goes. I think the Hokies will win, but I'm completely guessing at the score.

Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 17.


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