After suffering their second-straight loss last Saturday to Boston College, Virginia Tech will look to these three matchups to try and reverse their fate in Pittsburgh this weekend.
Virginia Tech Defensive Line vs. Qadree Ollison/Darrin Hall
In some ways, Pittsburgh runs a very similar offense to Boston College. They have a huge offensive line, and they try to punish their opponents with hard-nosed running. Once again, it will be important for the Hokies to try and clog up the middle.
Last week, the Hokies did a decent job of containing AJ Dillon, but on the whole, they were not really great against the run. After the game, Bud Foster raved about how well the Hokies did in stopping Dillon. While I think he was somewhat correct, the stats don't necessarily show the whole story.
Dillon finished the game with 24 carries for 96 yards. If you had told the Hokies that would be his stat line before the game, they probably would have been happy with it, especially considering they had just given up 465 rushing yards in the previous game.
However, Dillon went out with an injury about 5 minutes into the third quarter and did not return. That means that he had 96 yards about two and a half quarters. Not quite as impressive if you look at that way. If he had stayed healthy, he arguably would have been closer to 150 or so.
What's more, when backup Travis Levy came into the game, he had a lot of success. Levy took 11 carries for 75 yards, and he added two touchdowns. Even without their star running back, the Eagles still had plenty of ease with the power running game.
In order to shut down Panthers, the Hokies will need to be healthy on the line. Defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt missed the Boston College game with an ankle injury he suffered against Georgia Tech. Given the lack of depth of that position, Virginia Tech could really benefit from getting him back at Pittsburgh with the Hokies hoping he is able to go.
To make matters worse, Xavier Burke suffered an achilles injury last week, and he is unlikely to play this week. That means that guys like Ricky Walker, Jarrod Hewitt, and Vinny Mihota are going to have to take the bulk of the load. The only good news is that Mihota finally seems to be getting healthier.
While Qadree Ollison is no AJ Dillon, he has been very impressive this year. Ollison has 819 yards on 133 carries this season, which is a pretty significant 6.2 yards per carry. Even though UVA held Ollison to 24 yards, Pittsburgh's Darrin Hall had the game of his life with 19 carries for 229 yards and 3 TDs.
Darrin Hall has lived in Ollison's shadow a little bit this season, but the Hokies would be foolish to overlook him. Hall has 658 yards and seven touchdowns on 89 carries this season. All that to say, Pittsburgh is a two-headed monster at running back, and Virginia Tech is razor thin at defensive tackle. The Hokies are going to have to dig deep in this matchup.
Steven Peoples vs. Pittsburgh Defensive Line
Despite the criticism I just heaped on the defense, they played well enough to win the game. Particularly in second quarter, the Hokies had almost all underclassmen in the game due to injury, and they really stepped up. Sadly, the offense could not give them much help.
Virginia Tech really needed to get the running going against Boston College last week. They did not. Peoples had 12 carries for 39 yards, and Deshawn McClease had 7 carries for 13 (count 'em, 13) yards. Tech's leading rusher was QB Ryan Willis, who ran for 49 yards on 9 carries.
You are not going to win games in the ACC when your QB is your leading rusher every game. You just aren't (unless you're Jerod Evans, then you might win a lot of ACC games). The Hokies' running backs have got to be better in order to give them a chance to win games.
To be fair, it is not all on the running backs. The Hokies' offensive line was pretty poor all day. In particular, Boston College's defensive ends blew past freshman Christian Darrisaw multiple times. Kyle Chung also struggled, as it looked like he was chasing more than he was blocking for most of the day.
On the other hand, the receivers have done a great job blocking on the outside. On one screen pass to Peoples, Phil Patterson had a perfect block in the open field that allowed Peoples to pick up an extra 15-20 yards. The receivers (particularly Patterson and Tre Turner) have done just as well blocking when the Hokies run to the outside.
Yet, for some reason, Brad Cornelsen seemed insistent upon running the ball up the middle time and time again. I think that is what had some fans so upset about the playcalling after this game.
Fuente talked after the game about why they attempted to run the ball so much in the third quarter. He explained that Boston College was playing two high safeties and not even blitzing most of the time. Basically, they were taking away the pass and just begging the Hokies to run, but Tech still couldn't do it.
I understand Fuente's sentiment. The running game should have been able to open up against that defense, and that's why he kept going back to it. But the fact is, it wasn't doing that. At some point, you have to say, "Hey, this doesn't appear to be working. Maybe we should change our approach."
With that said, there is not too much that Fuente could have done. He could have just asked Willis to throw the ball a hundred times, but the Eagles were playing for that, so I'm not sure it would have had much more success.
In order for this offense to flow, the Hokies have to be able to run the ball at least at an average level. They don't need to go out there and put up 300 yards on the ground, and nobody expects that. What they do need to do is run well enough that teams have to respect it, which will open up the pass. Ryan Willis cannot do everything; he's got to have some help.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Pittsburgh's rushing defense is nothing to write home about. They have given up an average of 169.8 rush yards per game, which puts them at 74th in the country. That is not terrible, but it's not great either.
For comparison, Virginia Tech's rushing defense is 83rd in rushing yards allowed per game with 177.8. That is not much worse than Pittsburgh, and the Hokies have had some pretty bad outings in that regard.
Therefore, the Hokies should be able to get something going on the ground this week. If they can't, it is a serious problem, 1. because Pittsburgh's defense is not that good and 2. because it will probably prevent them for moving the ball effectively with Pitt being able to focus on their pass defense in that scenario.
Virginia Tech Offense vs. The Third Quarter
At this point, it is more than just a fluke. Against Notre Dame, it looked like maybe a one off thing. Against UNC, everyone just looked flat all around. Against Georgia Tech, it looked like the offense had just given up because the defense could not help them out by getting a stop all night. Now it has happened for the fourth time in a row, and it is a trend: Virginia Tech cannot score in the 3rd quarter.
Will Stewart of TechSideline.com posted a nice tweet of Virginia Tech's scoring breakdown by quarter against FBS opponents this year. Here are the numbers:
1st Quarter: VT 51, Opp 51
2nd Quarter: VT 55, Opp 34
3rd Quarter: VT 28, Opp 56
4th Quarter: VT 50, Opp 69
Virginia Tech has been outscored by 28 points in the third quarter in their seven FBS games this season. That is pretty astonishing.
They have also been outscored by another 19 points in the 4th quarter, but often by that time, the damage has already been done. If you look at just the last four games, the numbers are even worse.
The Hokies have scored a total of seven points in the third quarter over their last four games. The lone touchdown came on Sean Savoy's 13 yard catch and run against UNC. Against Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Boston College, Virginia Tech scored zero points in the third quarter. Combined.
In those four games, the Hokies opponents have outscored them by an absolutely incredible 49-7 margin. It is not like the Hokies were out of those games either. They were all one possession games at halftime, with Virginia Tech's largest deficit coming against Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets led by 7 at the half.
It is going to be really hard to win games if you get outscored like that in the third quarter. Justin Fuente talked about how every game is going to be a "stomach ache" that the Hokies will have to grind out. In games like that, you can't afford to have your offense just entirely disappear for an entire quarter.
It will be very important for the Hokies to come out strong in this game in both halves. The Hokies had energy against Boston College the first time they came out of the locker room, but by the third quarter it had disappeared. That cannot happen against Pittsburgh.
I would really like to see the Hokies score on their first possession of both the first and second halves. With a young team like this, the ebbs and flows of the game are magnified. That can be a good thing if they come out and score early to grab some momentum, but if they do not, it can make it hard to break out of the funk.
The Hokies have a tough task ahead of them on Saturday. In order to break this losing streak, they will have to stop a red hot Pittsburgh team who is playing on their own turf.
First, Virginia Tech needs to stop the run. They have not been able to do that in the last two games, and it has cost them big time. It will not be easy given the attrition on the defensive line, but it is time for someone to step up.
Next, the Hokies need to run the ball themselves. Like Boston College, Pittsburgh is happy to get into a running battle with their opponents, because they know they can win that most of the time. Even if Virginia Tech cannot beat Pittsburgh in rushing yards, they need to run well enough that it helps open up the passing game a little bit for Willis.
Lastly, this team has got to figure out to score in the third quarter. The Hokies have their big ritual that they perform before the fourth quarter begins where everyone jumps around and holds up four fingers. All I'm saying is, maybe they would be wise to get that excited before the third quarter, too.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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