After losing back-to-back games for the first time in the Justin Fuente era, Virginia Tech is looking to bounce back on Senior Day against Pittsburgh. With that said, Jackson Pugh goes Inside The Enemy with the Pittsburgh Panthers.
1. The Offensive Struggles
It is no secret that the 4-6 Panthers have struggled this season, and their inability to score points is a major reason for that. Pittsburgh ranks 97th in total offense, 97th in 3rd down conversion percentage, and 97th in sacks allowed. The inability to sustain drives, as evident by their woeful third down numbers, has been in large part due to the quarterback mess going on in the Steel City.
The injury to former starting QB Max Browne was devastating. Browne threw for 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in six games, all before his career ended on a shoulder injury against Syracuse. Since then, things have not been so good under center; backup Ben Dinucci has a touchdown-interception ratio of 4-4. Regardless of who has been the signal caller, opposing defenders have spent a lot of time in the face of Pitt quarterbacks in 2017. Indeed, it would take Ben Roethlisberger-type toughness to deal with this offensive line, as the Panthers have allowed 26 sacks this season.
The Hokies have been one of the best 3rd down defenses in the country, ranking 4th in the nation with a third down stoppage rate of 74.3%. If these statistics stay true, it could be a long afternoon for Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers' offense.
The Poor Secondary Play
As much as Pitt has struggled offensively, the defense has not done much to pick up the slack. For whatever reason, the Steel Curtain mentality has only gotten across to one team in Pittsburgh, as the Panthers' defense has had a season to forget. The defensive backs have made all their opponents look like Larry Fitzgerald, as the unit ranks 110th in pass yards allowed, surrendering 264.5 yards per game.
Indeed, it speaks volume that a 2-8 North Carolina team was able to put up 235 passing yards against Pitt last week. That is especially disturbing for Narduzzi because the Tar Heels are doing their own quarterback shuffle as they threw in sophomore QB Nathan Elliot into his second career game.
Josh Jackson has had a tough time throwing the ball the past few weeks. This game will be a great opportunity for him to get back on target with his receivers. Speaking of receivers, star Cam Phillips has a golden opportunity to make an ideal grand finale to his career, as this will be his last game ever in Lane Stadium.
The Rise of RB Darrin Hall
While the last two points have been very negative for the Pittsburgh Panthers, every thorn-field has its rose. Speaking of rose, that word is indeed a good past-tense verb for what RB Darrin Hall has done the past few weeks. Over the last three games, Hall has ran for 486 yards and 8 touchdowns, including a 254 yard explosion against Duke. In a school that is known for great running backs, such as Tony Dorsett, Dion Lewis and LeSean Mccoy, Hall simply looks like the next man up for the Panthers.
It was critical for the Panthers to get their run game going, as they entered the Duke game ranked 112th in rushing. Coming into Saturday's game, Pitt now ranks 73rd. Pat Narduzzi spoke of the emergence of the running game, after the Panthers win over Duke. “We talked, the key to victory was being able to run the football,” Narduzzi told reporters postgame. “And I think we proved we can do that.” (LA Times).
Star Player: OL Brian O’Neill
Another key player for the Panthers' offense is left tackle Brian O’Neill. Other than catching touchdown passes, O’Neill has been a big reason why Pittsburgh has improved its run game over the past few weeks. Every time Hall seems to break off a big run, #70 is pushing his defender either down the field or away from the play.
Mel Kiper ranks O’Neill as the 4th best offensive lineman in the 2018 draft class, as the 6-6, 305-pound man is extremely athletic for his size. Outside of his talent, O’Neill is a great leader as well. Indeed, he has had to drag around a very young offensive line for the Panthers, a line that brought in six freshmen lineman and four redshirt freshmen. Freshman Gabe Houy spoke of this leadership after summer workouts. “He’s definitely one of the main leaders. He’s always helping us,” freshman Gabe Houy said. “He’s like another offensive line coach, that’s how much of a role he plays.” (Post Gazette)
Star Player #2: Quadree Henderson
It is rare that we mention two star players in these “Inside the Enemy” pieces, but WR Quadree Henderson is certainly worth a mention. The junior has been explosive in the punt-return department; Henderson averages 16.1 yards per punt return, which is the best in the ACC among those with 10 punt returns or more. Henderson has also taken two returns to the house this season, so it is fair to suggest that Virginia Tech P Oscar Bradburn should kick the ball away from #10 in Vegas Gold.
Otherwise, if you like explosive punt returns, this is your game of the week. VT CB Greg Stroman, another Hokie senior, has made his mark on special teams, averaging 11.9 yards per return and scoring 2 touchdowns thus far.