Virginia Tech’s ACC hopes are on the line as they face Coastal leader Pittsburgh in the most important game in the division to date this season. With a win, the Hokies become the frontrunner and stay in control of their own destiny in their division. With a loss, the Hokies will be eliminated from Coastal title contention and will simply be looking for a way to make it to a bowl game.
The Hokies enter this game struggling having lost two-straight and three of their last four. Despite the losses, the Hokies have shown promise away from home with an undefeated road record in ACC play. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh seems to be surging after losing a trio of games in non-conference play along with a stunning early season loss to North Carolina. Since their slow start, Pitt has righted the ship to say the least with some big wins along the way including a win over currently 13th-ranked Syracuse.
For the Hokies, their ACC hopes are all on the line today so with that said, here are our keys to the game.
Establish the Run
Virginia Tech’s running game has struggled for most of the season outside of their early season performances against William & Mary and Old Dominion. Last week was the latest example as the Hokies tried to force the run in the second half against Boston College and couldn’t get anything going with Steven Peoples averaging just over 3 yards per carry and Deshawn McClease being held to 13 yards on 7 carries.
Against Pittsburgh, the Hokies will need to give Ryan Willis and VT’s passing offense some help via an improved running game.
Part of that will have to come with more outside runs after the Hokies seemed to get stuck on trying to run it between the tackles last week instead of providing some variety. Of course, part of that may have been due to Boston College’s highly-talented DEs but at some point, you have to schematically design to go more outside whether that is having Dalton Keene ready as an extra blocker on the line of scrimmage or having a guard from the opposite pull to help clear some way on the outside.
Against Pitt, the Hokies not only need to establish some sort of rushing attack, but they also need some variety in their playcalling. In addition, don’t be surprised if the Hokies try to use some bubble screens and swing passes in what are just simply outside extended runs that have proven to be productive at times especially with someone like Steven Peoples who has shown increased speed and agility this season.
Virginia Tech has to find some sort of running game this week because if they don’t, Ryan Willis and the Hokies will face a big challenge especially if VT doesn’t open up with 4 or even 5-receiver sets in that scenario and try to stretch the field vertically.
Make Pitt Beat You Through The Air
Offensively, Pittsburgh is a poor’s man Boston College with an offense built on a strong running game with Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, both of whom are averaging over 6 yards per carry this season. Meanwhile, Kenny Pickett has been okay so far this season, but he hasn’t played like someone who can go win a game for the Panthers if the running game isn’t there.
For the Hokies, it will be critical for them to stop the run which may require them to take some chances and leave their young cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage more than they would like to.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh lacks a standout receiver with no Pitt player having more than 20 recpetions or 300 receiving yards so far this season. For context, the Hokies have three players with more than 20 receptions and 2 with more than 300 receiving yards. Given Pitt’s receiving corps, Bud Foster shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances early with stuffing the box and seeing if his young cornerbacks can handle a receiving corps that seems to lack a #1 receiver.
Pickett hasn’t turned the ball over a lot with only 5 interceptions, but Pitt has lacked big plays in the passing game with the sophomore QB averaging a measly 6 yards per pass attempt. Pickett has been at best, a game manager this season, and hasn’t been the same QB that showed lots of promise last year when Pitt nearly upset the Hokies before taking down Miami the following week.
If the Hokies are going to win this game, they have to force Kenny Pickett and Pitt’s passing game to beat them with Bud Foster being likely to load the box with 7 or 8 consistently in the early parts of this game.
Don’t Come Out of Halftime Flat
Virginia Tech has been outscored 14-0 in the third quarter of three of their last four games with the only exception coming at a North Carolina team that would be chided regularly as the ACC’s worst team if they weren’t saved by the dumpster fire that is Louisville. Against a Pittsburgh team loaded with experienced players, the Hokies can’t afford to come out flat especially on the road even if Heinz Field isn’t a very hostile environment in terms of crowd atmosphere.
The issues coming out of halftime have simply become more exposed as consistencies in the Hokies’ struggles have started to show up regardless of opponent or style. Even when the opponents have made simple, uncomplicated adjustments like BC did going with their base defense or like Georgia Tech did by not changing anything other than occasionally running a blitz play that VT hadn’t dealt with too much, Virginia Tech has struggled adapting on the fly.
If the Hokies want to keep their ACC Coastal title hopes alive, they cannot come out flat and let their opponent either flip the margin like Boston College did or turn a close game into a blowout as Notre Dame and Georgia Tech did coming out of halftime. If they do, VT will return to Blacksburg simply trying to make a bowl game rather than being in control of the ACC Coastal.