by Jeff Ouellet, 10/31/02
Saturday, November 2nd, 2002, 7:30 Eastern
Saturday night forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
In what very well may be the toughest test for Virginia Tech pre-Miami, the 8-0 third-ranked Hokies face the 6-2 Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday night in Lane Stadium. Regardless of the competitiveness of the game – and it should be a great one – this may be the most interesting clash all year for the VT football team because of the game within the game.
Pitt presents some unique challenges for the Hokies in terms of what they do and how they do it. In a way, Pitt is the anti-BC, a team that always plays better against VT than they do against the rest of the country.
Walt Harris is a very bright guy, and he wants to lead the Panthers back to the top of the Big East. He knows with his recruiting base, solid facilities and the momentum generated by recent success, he is building the third best team in the conference. Because competing with Miami isn’t realistic on an annual basis at this point for Pitt, Harris has zeroed in on VT as his measuring stick and he probably prepares more for this game than any other game on the schedule.
This game has some added spice because of the way Pittsburgh beat VT last year, a 38-7 pasting at Heinz Field. To put some perspective on the result, it was the worst loss for the Hokies since the Carrier Dome nightmare in 1996 (a 52-21 loss) and Pittsburgh’s second largest EVER margin of victory in a Big East game. Folks, this is a conference with Rutgers and Temple, so that’s an astounding statistic.
Finally, in addition to the actual numbers, after the game graduating Pittsburgh SR WR R.J. English threw fuel on the fire when he accused the Hokies of quitting while other members of the Panthers, like star linebacker Gerald Hayes, said VT may have "laid down" when they got down big. There is nothing worse than being called out by the opposition after getting hammered, and the Hokies won’t have forgotten, I’m certain. All of these factors combine to make this weekend’s game must-see TV.
The Pittsburgh Offensive Dilemma
On paper, Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t anything to be concerned about, as the Panthers aren’t even in the top three in the Big East of any offensive category except pass offense, where they are third. Games aren’t played on paper, however, and there is reason to suspect Pittsburgh may be tougher than the numbers indicate against an outstanding Hokie defense.
The Panthers are led by athletic 6’3", 220 lb. R-JR QB Rod Rutherford. Rutherford has improved as the season has progressed, and he completes 53.5% of his passes while leading the Big East in total offense at almost 260 yards per game. He is third in passing yards per game and in pass efficiency. He is coming off a game against BC in which he tied for his career-high in pass completions (20) and also rushed for a career-high 73 yards. Rutherford is a good football player, and he is the key to the offense hopes of the Panthers because they won’t be able to sustain a ground game against VT’s first in the nation run defense.
At tailback, Pitt has given carries to everyone but Tony Dorsett thus far this year. The leading rusher and man of the hour is 6’0", 235 lb. R-JR Brandon Miree, who has 390 yards rushing on the year, averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Miree was a blue-chip national recruit in high school and selected Alabama, where he was dubbed a "bigger, stronger, faster Shaun Alexander." No pressure in trying to live up to a guy who scored five touchdowns in the NFL this year in one half. Miree is a solid player, but VT won’t have to do anything special to contain him.
The other three tailbacks that get time include Virginia and Madison County High native T-SO Raymond Kirkley, a Shyrone Stith type, diminutive former Pennsylvania sprint champion T-SO Marcus Furman and T-FR Jawan Walker from Erie Prep, a Pennsylvania football powerhouse. Curiously, Walker didn’t have his Pittsburgh debut until Notre Dame in game seven, so presumably the staff has big plans for him or it wouldn’t have burned his redshirt. None of the tailbacks average over four yards a carry. Pittsburgh has a capable fullback in R-JR Lousaka Polite.
After the departures of R.J. English and Antonio Bryant, Hokie fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that may have been premature. T-FR and former top 100 national recruit Larry Fitzgerald (6’3", 210 lbs.) has a team high 38 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns. Fitzgerald leads the Big East in receptions per game and is second in receiving yards per game. He’s got a legitimate chance to break all of Antonio Bryant’s freshman receiving records at Pitt. He will be a big-time player in the Big East and a thorn in VT’s side until he decides to play on Sundays.
The second-leading receiver is Virginia native Lamar Slade, also a supersized WR (6’4", 210). Slade has 35 receptions for 515 yards and 4 touchdowns and is a great compliment to Fitzgerald. The third leading receiver is T-SO WR Roosevelt Barnes and he’s the big play guy as he averages 24.1 yards per catch on 15 catches. These guys are all very talented, but they don’t catch the ball as consistently as last year’s group, and they make some of the mistakes typically associated with youth. Still, it’s an impressive trio.
Pittsburgh’s R-JR TE Kris Wilson has 9 catches. Big deal, you say? He has 245 yards receiving on those 9 catches, a 27.3 yards per catch average. Wow. That’s Andre Davis-esque and insane for a TE. They don’t throw to him a lot, but watch out when they do. He didn’t just put up fat stats against nobodies either – he had 2 catches for 86 yards against a very good Notre Dame defense.
The Panthers average a whopping 15.3 yards per pass completion, so they are capable of making big plays in the passing game.
Despite returning all five starters on the line, the Panthers haven’t been able to run the ball, as they average 3.0 yards per carry, and they have given up a whopping 28 sacks. Admittedly Pitt has been forced to throw a lot because of the ineffectiveness of the running game, but 28 sacks is a very high total with a fairly mobile QB. The Hokies lead the Big East with 31 sacks, so that would appear to be an advantage for VT.
The fact is that Pitt’s passing game has been remarkably effective against VT’s defense, to the tune of 983 passing yards in the last three meetings. Why the success? It has to do a lot with personnel and the fact that Harris has had big and talented WRs like English, Bryant and Latef Grim, but Harris attacks VT very well. He often uses maximum protection thereby holding out the VT pass rush and giving his talented WRs time to work on Tech's DBs. Equally importantly, Harris exploits Tech in the slot better than any other coach the Hokies play.
Without going into too much detail, any defensive back will tell you that covering an outside WR is easier than covering a slot receiver when you play man coverage for several reasons. Most importantly, a defensive back can use the sideline as an extra defender on an outside receiver and therefore has less field to cover. A slot receiver can cut either way and has more field to use. Also, a defensive back has to worry about potential interference in the form of bodies on rub plays from either side, so he has to keep his head on a swivel. A corner only has to worry about someone coming from the inside and running interference. Unless, of course, a UVa trainer is on the sideline …
Applying those general statements to this game, VT likes to play man and keep its corners on the outside receivers. That leaves the rover and whip (who match up on slot receivers) in the tough spot of trying to cover a big time WR in space. The rover and whip can’t even cheat towards the sideline against Pitt, because Pitt’s WRs are large and tough enough to catch passes over the middle and take a lick from a linebacker. That is one of the primary reasons, I suspect, Bud Foster has worked on a nickel package (three-man rush) this year. He wants to use a third corner to match up on the slot receivers the Hokies face. We might also see some zone out of VT in an attempt to slow Pitt’s passing game.
I’ve clearly oversimplified one small aspect of Pittsburgh’s passing success, but you get the picture: Pittsburgh’s approach to Tech's defense has proven successful. The way to deal with Pitt’s passing game is pressure, and more pressure, as I’m not sure Rutherford is as quick a decision-maker as David Priestly was last year.
The Pittsburgh Defensive Dilemma
Pittsburgh’s defensive philosophy is much like that of VT. The mastermind behind the scheme is 35 year old Paul Rhodes, a defensive coordinator who is going to be a head coach sooner rather than later.
The numbers for this defense are impressive. They are excellent statistically against the pass, surrendering just 166 yards per game (11th nationally), and they are also good against the run (111 yards per game, 24th nationally). Overall, they are eighth in total defense as the Panthers yield only 276 yards per game and 15.5 points per contest (10th in the nation).
The big play guy up front is 6’4", 255 R-JR Claude Harriott who has admirably replaced outstanding DE Bryan Knight. Harriott was the Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Week for his work in last week’s overtime win by the Panthers over BC. Harriot leads the team with 10 tackles for losses, 10 quarterback hurries, 3.5 sacks and an impressive five forced fumbles.
Bookend SR DE Brian Guzek is second on the team with 3 sacks, and he had a career high eight tackles and got a piece of the potentially game tying field goal in overtime against BC. The Panthers are solid up front, but not necessarily any better than the other fronts the Hokies have seen like LSU, Boston College (before the injuries) and Texas A & M.
Pittsburgh’s best player is MLB Gerald Hayes, a 6’3" 245 lb. SR linebacker who has been on the all conference team the last two years and is destined for a third appearance. Hayes leads the team with 78 tackles, he has 10 tackles for losses and he has two interceptions. He is a terrific football player, and he’ll be playing in the League next year. It will be a big job for Tech's interior people and Doug Easlick to keep him from disrupting the running game. Strongside linebacker Lew Moore is also a returning starter. He is third on the team in tackles.
The secondary is very good, and they are led by SR CB Torrie Cox. Cox is fourth on the team in tackles and is first in passes broken up (10). The Panthers rotate their other corners, with T-JR Shawntae Spencer the most likely to make a big play in the passing game as he has three interceptions (all in one game versus Ohio) and is second on the team with nine pass breakups.
Pittsburgh’s safeties are very active in run support particularly R-FR free safety Tez Morris, the second leading tackler on the team with 59 stops. He has played well in big games with 12 tackles against Texas A & M and 14 tackles in the Notre Dame game. T-SO SS Tyrone Gilliard rounds out a Panthers secondary that is seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Pittsburgh is very good at pressing the action, as they have forced 23 turnovers on the year. The Panthers have been solid against the run in both their losses, holding A & M to 2.5 yards per carry and Notre Dame to 1.3 yards per carry, but BC did exploit them last week for 177 total yards and a 4.4 yards per carry average. Given VT’s recent problems with turnovers, I would expect VT to try to establish the run first and then use some play action. The coaches won’t want to make a mistake early that lets Pitt get an early lead.
Usually a true freshman place kicker would be fresh meat for VT, but Pittsburgh K David Abdul has done an excellent job. He made four key field goals against BC and he is 11-16 on the season, which leads the Big East in conversion rate. JR punter Andy Lee is terrific too, averaging 43 yards per kick. Pitt’s net average of 38.4 yards per punt is impressive.
Cox is a good kickoff return guy, averaging almost 27 yards per return. 5’7", 170 lb. T-FR punt returner Billy Gaines from Urbana, Maryland has struggled some, averaging only 4.9 per return, but he is blazing fast. VT needs to make sure he doesn’t hit the open field, because he has legitimate 4.3 speed.
Anyone who thinks this game is going to be easy doesn’t appreciate the recent history of this series and how good the Panthers really are. They outgained a good Notre Dame team 402-185 in total yards in a tough 14-6 loss that easily could have been a win. Likewise, Pittsburgh also could have won their game versus A & M, a tough 14-12 loss that resulted primarily from a botched extra point. Take into account Pittsburgh’s offensive scheme, and you have a recipe for a classic, tough-hitting November football game. Get to the game early, regardless of weather, and be prepared to scream like there is no tomorrow, because for the Hokies’ BCS hopes, there may not be one, if the Hokies can’t beat Pitt.
My guess is that Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones will have solid games and combine for 175-200 rushing yards, and Bryan Randall will make just enough plays for VT to win. The electric atmosphere of Lane at night should help the Hokies pull out a close game. Watch the turnover battle and the duel between the freshman kickers. Either one, or both, could decide the outcome of the game.
Prediction: VT 16, Pittsburgh 10