BLACKSBURG — Pittsburgh and No. 25 Virginia Tech meet in a pivotal Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division clash Saturday.
The Panthers (7-3, 4-2) and Hokies (7-3, 4-2) both enter with a chance to capture the division, although the crown won’t be determined until after Virginia Tech’s game at Virginia on Nov. 29.
Pitt and Virginia Tech are two of the hottest teams in the conference behind No. 3 Clemson. The Panthers have won six of their last seven games and the Hokies five of their past six.
The longtime rivals, dating to their Big East days, anticipate another slugfest in a series Virginia Tech leads 10-8. Pitt ranks first nationally with an average of 4.5 sacks per game, and the Hokies are 11th nationally with an average of 3.3 sacks.
Virginia Tech is 5-0 with Hendon Hooker at quarterback and has rushed for more than 200 yards in four of its past five games. Coach Justin Fuente likes those numbers, “but watching the film, I think they force people to throw the ball more than they want to because they are so good against the run,” he said of the Panthers.
“It’s going to be tight down the field, we know that going into the game, but they’ve certainly done a good job getting pressure on the quarterback,” Fuente added.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s team stumbled with two early losses but has turned things around on the back of its defense. The Panthers lead the ACC in rushing defense, allowing 90.9 yards per game, and trail only Clemson in total defense, allowing 298 yards per game.
“Now we get to mid-November, late November and find we’re going to have a battle on our hands down in Blacksburg,” Narduzzi said. “They’re well coached, they’re tough, they’re physical, they like to run the football and again they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Kickoff at Lane Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
The Hokies were turnover prone before making the move to Hooker at quarterback. He’s mobile but mostly he avoids mistakes, having thrown for eight touchdowns with no interceptions in his five starts.
The Panthers will be without leading receiver Maurice Ffrench (broken jaw), providing sophomore Shocky Jacques-Louis and freshman Jared Wayne more opportunities. Jacques-Louis has caught a touchdown in each of his last two games, including a 74-yard catch-and-run against North Carolina. The 6-foot-3 Wayne caught four passes for 30 yards against the Tar Heels.
In closely matched games, turnovers and special teams plays can be huge momentum changers. The Hokies still tout their “Beamerball” mentality but have also been victimized in recent seasons by special teams mistakes.
THIRD AND FOREVER
Virginia Tech is sixth in the ACC, giving up 1.9 sacks per game, and nearly half of Pitt’s 45 sacks — 21 — have come on third down.
“We think we do some stuff in that package that a lot of people don’t do, can’t do ... And we’ve got some new twists for this week, as well, that maybe nobody has seen yet,” Narduzzi said.
The Hokies honored retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster in their last home game to keep with their tradition of the final home game being Senior Day. But with very few seniors on the roster, and coming off a shutout win at Georgia Tech, defensive players will surely be charged up for Foster’s last game at Lane Stadium — especially since Pitt has the more heralded unit.
Hokies tight end and Union alum James Mitchell was awarded the honor of wearing Frank Beamer’s No. 25 for the game.
The 6-3, 252-pound sophomore hauled in four catches, including a touchdown, for a career-best 90 yards in last weekend’s rout of Georgia Tech, giving him 18 receptions for 325 yards and two scores this year. Also a standout in short-yardage situations, he’s rushed for three touchdowns on four carries.