The #25 Virginia Tech Hokies and Pittsburgh Panthers square off at Heinz Field tonight in a critical ACC Coastal showdown that will have a big impact on control of the Coastal. For the Hokies, they are in control of their own destiny and know that a win will strengthen their position in the Coastal while Pittsburgh needs a win tonight to put themselves in an improved position in the Coastal.
Both teams enter tonight with only 1 ACC loss, and the loser of this matchup will be in worse shape in the conference, especially if that is Pittsburgh. With all that said, here are the keys to the game for tonight’s huge Coastal game in Pittsburgh.
Contain Quadree Henderson
Quadree Henderon is a dynamic player that the Hokies will have likely seen plenty of on film whether it be from what he can as a return man to making plays as a receiver not only in the passing game but even more in the running game. The Hokies will likely know that Henderson is one of those players that can make something big happen with just a couple of good blocks or a missed tackle.
So far, Henderson has made plays in three different ways as he has 2 touchdowns off kick returns and is averaging 35.9 yards per return while on offense, Henderson is averaging 10.2 yards per catch and 10.9 yards per carry with 1 receiving touchdown and 3 rushing touchdown. Henderson has maintained that 10.9 yards per carry even with the fact that he has ran the ball 32 times, just showing how dangerous he can be on jet sweeps and other running plays designed for the sophomore receiver.
While James Connor is the star of this offense, it’s Henderson who is the biggest threat to a Virginia Tech defense that has improved in terms of giving up less big plays but has been far from perfect this season. Bud Foster will have to have his defense ready to make sure any touch they get on Henderson results in a tackle knowing how quickly he can make big things happen.
One way the Hokies can help shut down Henderson is to continue to get touchbacks at a high rate as Joey Slye has done this season. There have been times where the Hokies have seemed to have Slye try to put a little more arc on his kick to prevent an opponent from automatically getting the ball at the 25 but the Hokies should avoid that strategy tonight and do everything they can to prevent Henderson from getting a chance to return a kick.
If Bud Foster’s defense and the Hokies’ special teams can keep Henderson in check, Virginia Tech will be in good shape to get the job done at Heinz Field but if not, the Hokies will be in for some serious trouble.
Make Pittsburgh Beat You Through The Air
Pittsburgh’s offense is built upon running the football whether it would be with star running back James Conner or with their star speedy wide receiver Quadree Henderson who is averaging over 10 yards per carry on 32 carries this season. Nathan Peterman is a solid quarterback but with the threat that the unique duo of Conner and Henderson bring, the Hokies need to be stout on run defense and force Peterman into third and long situations.
Virginia Tech’s pass defense has gotten the job against more talented quarterbacks including Mitch Trubisky while also facing more talented receiving corps this season. However, one thing that Peterman hasn’t done is turn the ball over as Peterman has only thrown two interceptions on the season so far but has also only thrown for more than 200 yards twice.
Pittsburgh had a very good offensive line and rushing attack led by James Conner as the traditional guy and WR Quadree Henderson making some big runs in space off of jet sweeps and other stuff. As a team, Pittsburgh is averaging 5.1 yards per carry with Conner averaging a solid 4.3 as the lead tailback while Henderson averages an impressive 10.9 yards per carry and backup Chawntez Moss averages 6.2 yards per carry.
Virginia Tech will need to ideally be as close as they can to full strength on the defensive line and can’t really afford to be without both Ken Ekanem and Vinny Mihota tonight. The Hokies do have the depth to be fine if Nigel Williams, the only starter the is questionable, is unable to play for the second straight week.
Overall, Virginia Tech will have to make Peterman beat them and not a rushing attack that has the talent to make big things happen with Conner and Henderson. If the Hokies can contain the Pittsburgh rushing attack and force Peterman to beat them, Virginia Tech should be able to get the job done.
Attack Through The Air Early and Often
Pittsburgh has a solid rush defense and pass rush but overall, their defense has a big weakness with their overall pass defense that both Oklahoma State and North Carolina took advantage of to beat the Panthers. Quarterbacks have been able to do a lot of damage against Pittsburgh through the air as the Panthers are 122nd in the nation in pass yards per game (298.9 yards/game).
The Panthers have faced some prolific quarterbacks and seen them play well with Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky throwing for over 450 yards against Pittsburgh while even Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas threw for 130 passing yards in their 37-34 loss to Pittsburgh.
The difference between the Hokies and the other two teams that have beat Pittsburgh is that the Hokies have a much-better defense even if Jerod Evans is a slightly less prolific passer than Rudolph or Trubisky.
Pittsburgh also is somewhat banged up in the secondary so with this also, Brad Cornelsen would be smart to attack Pittsburgh through the air and test the Pittsburgh secondary early and often given that weakness and the Hokies’ talented WR trio in Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, and Cam Phillips.
This matchup sets up well for Jerod Evans to have a big game but Pittsburgh will be ready for this tough matchup. One thing that Pittsburgh has done fairly well is limit the number of passing touchdowns they allow as Pittsburgh has only given up 12 passing TDs in seven games this season despite giving up so many passing yards.
Stay up with The Tech Lunch Pail for the latest on the Hokies via Twitter, Facebook, and our email updates.