This week, Virginia Tech leaves Lane Stadium for the first time this season and travel to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers.
There are pitfalls in Pittsburgh. The Virginia Tech Hokies have lost their last three games to the Pittsburgh Panthers and actually travel to the future this week, as the Panthers will be ACC-bound in 2013.
The Hokies are expected to make it 3-0 for the season with this game, but there are five factors essential to achieving victory.
Virginia Tech hasn't lost on the road for 13 games, a record the Hokies expect to remain intact. There’s a good history between the two teams, with the pair being old Big East rivals, so it should be an entertaining matchup.
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is in his first year and has had a shaky start to his tenure, losing his first two games. His offensive line gave up six sacks against Cincinnati last week—this continued the Bearcats’ woes from 2011, when they gave up the most sacks in the country (63, via CFBStats.com).
That brings us up to date, so let’s have a look at the key elements to Saturday’s game.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all stats are via CFBStats.com.
Establishing the Run
It was always going to be tough when David Wilson left, so the start of the season brought with it concerns about the VT running back position.
Those concerns have not been assuaged just yet.
The Hokies are rushing for 3.88 yards per attempt so far, while allowing 3.66 yards in return. Compare this to last year—when they ran for 4.43 and allowed 3.22—and the drop-off is clear.
While it’s valid to argue that the uneven sample sizes negate the ability to compare this year’s team to that of 2011, anyone who has watched the games will have seen the difficulties Tech has had with its running game.
If there’s a time to get it going, it’s Saturday against the Panthers. Using the same method of comparison, Pittsburgh is allowing 6.01 yards per carry so far this season—nearly twice as much as last year.
Michael Holmes had his first career touchdown last week—which he then followed up with another—so it may be that this game is the catalyst to getting the ground game moving again.
Breaking the Offensive Line
As noted above, Pittsburgh surrendered six sacks in its last game, so the Hokies will look to exploit this.
The Panthers have converted to a pro-style offense under Chryst, so there will undoubtedly be teething problems.
The Tech defense boasts a strong front seven, and it will consider itself the favorite in this battle.
Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri has looked improved from last year, despite not having a genuine threat on the outside. However, linebackers Jack Tyler and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow have been impressive and should have no difficulty getting to Sunseri and forcing him into mistakes.
Sunseri is learning his third system in as many years, and mistakes are therefore inevitable. His interceptions outnumbered his touchdowns last year, mostly as a result of poor offensive line play.
Look for that to continue under pressure from the Hokies defense.
Although fellow safety Detrick Bonner has been ruled “probable” for the trip to Pittsburgh, the onus will be on Kyshoen Jarrett to continue his excellent work in the secondary.
Jarrett has racked up 15 tackles so far—good for fourth on the team—and his big hits have been a highlight of the sometimes-listless play of the Hokies. He has earned the team’s “Hammer Award” in both weeks for his aggressive play.
He also signaled the return of “Beamer Ball” with a 46-yard punt return for a touchdown against Austin Peay last week, so he is a key figure in this game.
If Bonner isn’t able to play, it’s likely that Jarrett will move to free safety to accommodate, but it shouldn’t affect his performance.
Originally committed to Pittsburgh—he decommitted following coach Dave Wannstedt’s departure— Jarrett now gets the chance to prove he made the right decision in choosing to be a Hokie.
When speaking to VTEffect.com, Jarrett was diplomatic about playing against the team he almost joined:
I’m excited to play every game and have the opportunity to start. This has been a great road for me, leading up to my first start against Georgia Tech, so I have the same thought process for every single game, and I’m just going through and doing what I have to do and doing my job.
It’s stating the obvious by including Thomas on this list, but the Tech signal-caller is yet to realise the potential that has some analysts ranking him as the first overall pick in next year’s NFL draft.
It might be a lack of connection with his new receivers, or he might be over-thinking the plays, but Thomas hasn’t been accurate with his passes this year. It’s not been down to his receivers, either: Thomas has frequently overshot his targets and made the wrong choices.
The Pittsburgh defense isn’t going to put him under much pressure, so Thomas should have the time to run through his progressions and concentrate on hitting his receivers. His talent shined through in the final minutes of the opening fixture—and in parts of the Governors game—but he is yet to put a complete performance together—passing or rushing—this year.
He can take comfort from the fact that he is also yet to turn the ball over, which is a pleasing statistic to note. He should continue that streak to three games this week, as the Panthers have yet to register an interception this year.
Thomas has to show that he can control the offense and offer true dual-threat capabilities. The Pittsburgh defense should give him many opportunities to do just that.
Ray Graham and Rushel Shell
The above players rank as Pittsburgh’s most dangerous threats. Graham currently averages 5.27 yards per carry, and the Panthers have been very grateful he chose them over Oklahoma and West Virginia. He is returning from a torn ACL, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed him so far this season.
Graham has good movement and an excellent burst off the line, in addition to the ability to quickly readi the defense, pick his route and go. He gets the hard yards and has the pace to make big plays. Graham also presents an extra threat as a receiver, so the Hokies will try and jam him at the line and prevent him from finding the holes.
Shell is the most prolific running back in Pennsylvania high school history (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and will act as another good option for Sunseri in the backfield. He ran for a national-record 39 consecutive 100-yard games in high school and arrived in Pittsburgh with no shortage of hype.
This hype was dampened slightly when he was suspended for the season opener for violating team rules, but he left the field last week with 31 yards from eight carries.
He will have to compete with sophomore Isaac Bennett for playing time, but if he displays his high-school form, you can bet that Rushel Shell III will have the fans chanting “RS3” at the end of each game.
The challenge for Virginia Tech will be to keep both Graham and Shell quiet over the full 60 minutes.