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Key Matchups for Virginia Tech Football Against Pittsburgh

VT v UNC 2019 156
Grant Atkinson
Photo Credit: Jake Roth

Virginia Tech faces an important Coastal division matchup against Pittsburgh this Saturday. In order for the Hokies to maintain control of their own destiny in the division, they will need to key in on these matchups.

Pittsburgh Cornerbacks vs. Virginia Tech Wide Receivers

In most games this season, Virginia Tech’s receivers have enjoyed a size advantage over the opposing corners. With Tre Turner and Damon Hazelton on the outside, the Hokies have been able to rely on their receivers to make plays over the defenders.

This week, that may not be the case. Pittsburgh’s two starting corners, Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis, are listed at six foot and five foot eleven, respectively.

Throughout the season, Pittsburgh’s defensive backs have proven to not only have good size, but also be effective. The Panthers have five players with at least seven pass breakups each.

Damon Hazelton leads the Hokies with 22 receptions for 386 yards and six touchdowns. This game will be arguably his toughest test of the season thus far.

In addition to their strong wide receivers, the Hokies have two very capable pass catchers at tight end. James Mitchell and Dalton Keene have 18 and 17 receptions on the season, respectively.

With Hendon Hooker at quarterback, the tight ends have been a huge part of the offense. Given the talent of Pittsburgh’s corners, Hooker may look to his tight ends often once again.

Virginia Tech Offensive Line vs. Pittsburgh Defensive Line

Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies rushed for 238 yards in their 45-0 win. Virginia Tech spread the ball around well as eight different players got carries. Five of those players exceeded 30 rushing yards on the day.

Pittsburgh will certainly be looking to make the sledding much tougher for the Hokies this weekend. They are allowing just 90.9 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks seventh in the country in that category.

As Virginia Tech showed last Saturday, they are at their best when many different players have success on the ground. While Deshawn McClease has been rapidly improving this season, the Hokies would still prefer for him to stay around 10 to 15 carries each game.

Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen did a good job integrating jet sweeps and other non-traditional running plays against the Yellow Jackets. Look for him to do the same against Pittsburgh.

Virginia Tech’s young offensive line has matured very quickly this season. In addition to the challenge of run blocking this weekend, they will need to protect quarterback Hendon Hooker.

“There are plenty of things we need to work on to continue to improve,” head coach Justin Fuente said of the offensive line. “This is a very talented defensive front and a very aggressive scheme that we’ll need to play our best.”

Pittsburgh has tallied 45 total sacks through ten games this season. That is the most total sacks by any team in the country, and is three more than the #2 team in that category, undefeated Ohio State.

Against North Carolina last Thursday, Pittsburgh defensive line impressed once again with five sacks. They will look to carry that momentum into this weekend against the Hokies.

Justin Fuente vs. Pat Narduzzi

Since Justin Fuente got to Virginia Tech, the annual game against Pittsburgh has turned into somewhat of a rivalry. Fuente led the Hokies to wins in his first two matchups with Pittsburgh, but the Panthers dominated the Hokies last season at Heinz Field.

The most memorable game for Fuente against Pittsburgh was probably his first one in 2016. Fuente’s strategy in that game was to give his receivers, namely Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, and tight end Bucky Hodges, chances to make plays one-on-one.

That strategy worked, and all three of the players exceeded 100 receiving yards in the Hokies’ 39-36 victory. Virginia Tech fans probably remember Pat Narduzzi’s sideline antics during that game as he argued against the defensive pass interference calls his team received all night.

Last season, though, it was Narduzzi who got the better of Fuente. The Panthers ran all over the Hokies, tallying a staggering 492 rushing yards in a 52-22 victory. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster says that Virginia Tech has not forgotten that embarrassment.

"The biggest motivation factor is that we can put on last year's game and show that we were manhandled across the board," Foster said Tuesday.

Both the coaches and the players remember how they felt after last season’s beatdown, and they want to avenge that. Fuente and Foster each made that clear this week.

For Pat Narduzzi’s part, he does not lack confidence in his own team. He said this week on ACC Network that he has no doubt his players will be ready for a rowdy atmosphere in Blacksburg.

“We will embrace the atmosphere there in Blacksburg, and our kids will be ready for it,” Narduzzi said. “You know, we had no false starts at Penn State, and we’ll have none on Saturday at 3:30 either.”

Almost every time these teams meet, it turns out to be a great battle. Four of the last five matchups have been decided by a single possession.

Both Fuente and Narduzzi feel that they have their teams ready for Saturday. In the end, it may come down to who can outcoach the other.

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