PITT A MUST-WIN GAME FOR VA. TECH
Third-place Hokies need to catch up in Coastal Division race
BLACKSBURG — Ryan Willis realizes playing the blame game to explain Virginia Tech’s recent struggles won’t do much good, but he also has the benefit of real perspective when it comes to slumping.
Two years ago, he lost 10 of his last 11 games at Kansas. That’s the kind of futility that could make Tech’s three losses in its last four games seem like a minor blip, but he can’t deny the Hokies are headed in the opposite direction from ACC Coastal Division-leading Pittsburgh (5-4, 4-1 ACC) at exactly the wrong time going into Saturday’s meeting.
There’s no doubt Willis and his teammates understand the urgency.
“We just need to be better as players,” said Willis, who will be making his sixth start at quarterback for the Hokies in place of the injured Josh Jackson. “We need to take a lot of the responsibility . ... We just can’t let any opportunities slide by, especially in close games.”
While third-place Tech (4-4, 3-2) looks to stay in control of its own destiny in the division with a victory, and avoid elimination from the division race via a loss, Pitt will try to stay hot.
Tech needs two more victories in its last three games to get bowl-eligible for a 26th straight season. Pitt has won three of its last four games, including a 23-13 victory Nov. 2 at then-No. 25 Virginia.
After starting the season 3-4, including a 51-6 home loss in September to then-No. 13 Penn State, a 45-14 loss in October at then-No. 13 Central Florida and a
19-14 loss in October at then-No. 5 Notre Dame, Pitt has hit its stride against the softer part of its schedule thanks to a surging pass rush and productive ground game.
Pitt sacked U.Va. quarterback Bryce Perkins five times, while Panthers running back Darrin Hall ran 19 times for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Tech, which hopes to have defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt and linebackers Rashard Ashby and Dylan Rivers — all of whom are starters who sat out last weekend's loss to Boston College with injuries — back Saturday, gave up an average of 306.3 rushing yards per game in its last three outings (at North Carolina, against Georgia Tech and against BC).
As disastrous as the tough early stretch could've been for Pitt's psyche, the challenging nature of the Panthers' early schedule was certainly by design. During eight seasons (2007-2014) as Michigan State's defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi took notes on scheduling and how it affects a team from Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo.
Narduzzi, who saw his program lose 39-36 two seasons ago at home to Virginia Tech and 20-14 last season at Virginia Tech, remains sold on the Izzo philosophy.
“You watch (Izzo) play in Kansas (on Tuesday night), and his philosophy has always been to play the best, and it's going to make you better in the end,” said Narduzzi, whose team plays at Wake Forest and at Miami after Saturday's game. “Michigan State is always in the Sweet 16 because of the grueling schedule that they had. They played the No. 1 team (Tuesday night), and to me I learned from Tom Izzo just who you're playing and what it does for you, win or loss. It's making you stronger, it's making you better and it's really prepared us for where we are today.”
From Virginia Tech's perspective, playing its final road game of the season may be a good thing, considering Lane Stadium hasn't been terribly inviting for more than a month. In October, Virginia Tech lost all three of its home games, leaving the Hokies with a home skid of more than two games for the first time since the final game of the 1994 season (against U.Va.) and first two games of the '95 season (against Boston College and Cincinnati).
While Virginia Tech heads back on the road, which has been its comfort zone for the most part this season (3-1 on the road), the Hokies will also revisit a defensive scheme they had success against earlier in the fall. Pitt prefers to play press coverage against wide receivers and challenge them at the line of scrimmage – a defensive approach 6-foot-2 Virginia Tech receivers Damon Hazelton and Eric Kumah have exploited at times by going up to make catches over smaller cornerbacks.
Willis leads an offense that has struggled to sustain early success in games.
Against BC, Virginia Tech scored touchdowns on two of its first four possessions, then went nine drives without scoring. In the loss to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech got into the end zone on its first three drives, before going six consecutive drives without a score. In its victory at North Carolina, Virginia Tech scored a touchdown on its opening drive, but failed to score on its next eight possessions.
Getting receivers to take advantage of Pitt's aggressive coverage will be a top priority for Virginia Tech as it tries to get its offense back on track.
“I think that's always going to be important, not just for us but for everyone that plays them,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “You'd like to find a way to get some easy completions, but when it comes down to it, there's going to be times when you're going to have to make contested catches, and I don't think this game will be any exception to that rule.”
Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis can’t deny the Hokies are headed in the opposite direction from ACC Coastal Division-leading Pittsburgh going into Saturday’s meeting