Virginia Tech plays the most important game of their season to date in Lane Stadium against Coastal rival Pittsburgh. The Hokies know what's at stake as a victory sets up a winner-take-all game in Charlottesville against in-state rival Virginia for the ACC Coastal title.
Tech must not overlook Pittsburgh, who presents issues both offensively and defensively. The Panthers are no pushover, and the Hokies need to be ready for a competitive game on Saturday.
Here are the three keys to a Hokies victory.
1. Game Management
Throughout Virginia Tech's surge during the second half of the season, the team and coaching staff have done an excellent job at managing the game. From clock management, to player development, to play calling as a whole, the entire team has taken giant leaps forward since the season kicked off in late August.
Game management is going to be particularly important against Pittsburgh on Saturday, as the cold, damp conditions could hinder what the Hokies want to do as a whole on offense. With steady rain and wind, and game time temperatures hovering in the low 40s, the success of the running game and the short passing game, will be especially important in the football game. Additionally, the playcalling will be important to create unpredictability and try to prevent Pitt from having more than 7 in the box on defense.
The coaching staff and team have done an excellent job at game management throughout the last six games. However, in the team's most important game of the season, that continued efficiency will be paramount to picking up a sixth victory in 7 games.
2. Keep Pittsburgh Out of the End Zone
On its face, this seems like a really obvious key to the game, but let's dive a bit deeper.
We've talked about Virginia Tech's effectiveness at managing the game this season, but on the other side for Pittsburgh, fans have been quite frustrated at times with Pat Narduzzi's conservatism. Countless times this season, Pittsburgh has elected to kick field goals less than 30 yards (with varying levels of success, might I add - see the North Carolina game last Thursday) instead of going for it in 4th and goal situations inside the opponent's 10 yard line.
Sure, there are many situations in which kicking the field goal is the smart choice when stopped in the red zone. However, Pittsburgh has shown zero willingness to play aggressively this season, and in some cases, it has cost them.
Virginia Tech's willingness to play smart, aggressive football has led to the Hokies' emergence back into the AP Top 25, something that many couldn't even fathom after the blowout home loss to Duke in September. Pitt's conservatism, especially if Virginia Tech can consistently make stops on defense, is something that will absolutely play into the Hokies' hands on Saturday - even more than usual.
3. Run, Run, Run, Run, RUN
Virginia Tech's lack of success running the football under Justin Fuente was well-chronicled entering the 2019 football season, as he and his staff were having major issues finding ways to establish the run without a battering ram quarterback like Jerod Evans.
Since Justin Fuente's 10-4 first season, the Hokies have struggled to find an identity rushing the football, and the offense has been inherently limited as a result.
The same held true throughout the month of September, as the Hokies ran the football with varying levels of success in the 2-2 start. Tech ran for 98 yards against Boston College (bad), 131 against Old Dominion (meh), 227 against Furman (pretty good!), and 139 in a blowout loss to Duke.
Since the Duke loss, the Hokies are 5-1, with the lone loss coming on the road to top 15 Notre Dame by one point without starting quarterback Hendon Hooker. In this six game stretch, the running game has been outstanding:
- 153 at Miami
- 224 vs. Rhode Island
- 254 vs. North Carolina
- 101 at Notre Dame
- 228 vs. Wake Forest
- 238 at Georgia Tech
For those keeping score at home, that is 199.6 yards per game on the ground over the last six games, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for a struggling offense. The addition of Jerry Kill as an offensive analyst has much to do with the turnaround running the football, as Justin Fuente has alluded to at length, but the entire coaching staff deserves credit for turning things around offensively mid-season.
Pittsburgh's rushing defense enters play ranked 6th nationally, giving up only 90.9 yards per game. This is by far Pat Narduzzi's best defense since arriving at Pittsburgh, and the ability of his unit on defense to stymie the run has been a major reason for the success in 2019. In a game that will feature sloppy weather, it is paramount that the Hokies run the football, and run it well against the strength of Pittsburgh's defense.
Whether or not the Hokies answer the bell once again rushing the football will likely determine if they win or lose.