It might be tempting for the Virginia Tech football team to take the Pittsburgh Panthers lightly, but that could prove to be a very costly mistake.
Although the Panthers aren’t being discussed as ACC contenders, the 3-1 squad could easily give the Hokies trouble in Lane Stadium on Saturday.
Pittsburgh hasn’t played a talented team since they opened the season with the Florida State Seminoles, and the Panthers lost that game 41-13.
Since then, they’ve played lesser squads like the New Mexico Lobos, the Duke Blue Devils and the Virginia Cavaliers, but still accrued impressive statistics while earning three straight wins.
The Hokies have piled up some striking stats of their own, but there’s still the potential for this matchup to be a trap game.
Not only do the Panthers have an explosive offense, but Tech has also traditionally played really poorly against Pitt.
The game may be lightly promoted, yet it could easily turn into a big upset.
Physical Run Game
Last year, the Panthers dominated the Hokies with the ground game.
Pitt ran for 254 yards against Bud Foster’s defense, with Ray Graham and Rushel Shell doing most of the damage.
The offensive line manhandled Tech’s normally stout defensive line and made the Hokies look silly.
The front seven couldn’t control their gaps and the secondary experienced some serious lapses in tackling.
This video of a 29-yard run by Shell perfectly demonstrates how thoroughly the Panthers’ run game thrashed Tech’s defense.
Pitt’s offensive line blows the defensive tackles away with a solid burst off the line and the ends compound the problem by committing to the wrong side of the field.
Shell easily evades the tackles in the secondary with his mixture of size and speed to finish the big play.
Luckily for the Hokies, both Shell and Graham are gone. But they’ve been replaced by freshman James Conner, who’s made an immediate impression.
He’s already run for 353 yards and is averaging 5.7 yards a carry. En route to those impressive numbers, he’s flashed both power and speed, as the video clip from his game against the Lobos demonstrates.
The offensive line is a physical group once again, with four of the five starters standing at 6’6”.
Tech’s defensive line has been much improved from a season ago, but they’ll still face a stiff challenge on the ground.
However, the air attack is potent as well.
The Panthers are still a run-heavy team, but some of the development of their wide receivers has allowed them to go to the pass as well.
The combination of senior Devin Street and freshman Tyler Boyd on the perimeter has helped Pitt throw for 265 yards per game.
The receivers will pose a stiff challenge for Tech’s secondary thanks to their complimentary skill sets.
Street is a physical specimen at 6’4”, 190 pounds and he’s a real challenge for defensive backs to bring down.
Just watch this video clip of his long catch-and-run against the Seminoles.
Street has to fight through double coverage just to make the catch, then drives through both defenders’ tackles.
He jukes one more Seminole before bulling over another one for a few extra yards. The Panthers have definitely played some soft competition so far, but it should be noted that Street accomplished this against the fourth best pass defense in the nation.
Boyd has been equally brilliant. He’s slightly smaller than Street, standing at 6’2”, but he’s just as deadly.
He’s shown some elite athleticism at times en route to several big plays, with few more impressive than this diving grab while falling out of bounds.
It may seem like an incredible play, but this sort of thing has become the norm for Boyd; he’s averaging 14 yards per catch this season.
While Tech’s secondary has been stellar so far, this is the toughest pair of receivers they’ve had to face to date.
However, it’s history that the Hokies should really be concerned with.
For whatever reason, the Panthers just seem to have Frank Beamer’s number.
The Hokies have lost the last four games they’ve played against Pitt.
That’s the longest losing streak Tech has against any opponent, as Beamer himself noted.
Tech has just a 7-5 record against the Panthers overall, but even more disturbingly, Pitt has a knack for ruining the Hokies’ whole seasons.
The Hokies have a combined record of 23-2 entering the last four losses to the Panthers; they’ve gone a combined 10-17 after those games.
Last year was a perfect example of this odd phenomenon. The Hokies entered the game ranked 13th, but the loss to the Panthers knocked them out of the polls, and they never returned.
It’s not as if Pitt has been a particularly good team during this stretch. The Hokies have been ranked in the top 15 entering each of these four games, while the Panthers were only ranked once.
But by some odd series of coincidences, Tech just can’t overcome the Panthers.
The Hokies have turned the ball over 15 times in these last four Pitt games, and given up an average of 465 yards of offense.
Nevertheless, Tech has a decent chance at overcoming these demons this season, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers should be taken lightly.
It’s hard to deny that the Hokies’ defense is significantly better this season, considering its fifth in the country right now.
The defensive line has been a huge part of this success and hasn’t had the same kind of gap discipline issues the unit had last year.
Similarly, the secondary has recovered in a big way, leading the nation in interceptions. Pitt’s receivers may be excellent, but quarterback Tom Savage has already thrown six interceptions, a total Tech’s defensive backs figure to increase.
There’s also the matter of the Panthers’ defense. It’s allowing 380.8 yards a game, and with a passing game that’s totaled 514 yards over the last two games, Tech should be able to take advantage.
But this matchup still poses a lot of problems for the Hokies.
While they'll likely emerge victorious, it will undoubtedly be a dogfight that tests this young team.
One thing is for certain; if Tech wants to remain in the ACC Coastal race, it needs this win very badly, and it’s going to be a real challenge to get it.