Third-place Hok­ies need to catch up in Coastal Di­vi­sion race

Daily Press - - Sports - By Norm Wood Staff writer

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

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