Itís Focus Week
This week, everyone watching the Hokie football team gets to find out if all the talk of focusing and taking each game one at a time is just talk, or if the Hokies are really going to do it.
Tech will be coming off a two-week break, following an incredible 62-0 stomping of Syracuse. On Monday, the BCS rankings were released, and that event, along with the national media starting to harp on the strength of schedule issue, has provided plenty of distraction for the Hokie players and coaches.
Among the fans, most of the talk this week has been dominated by BCS (Bowl Championship Series) and SOS (Strength of Schedule) issues. There has been very little talk of Pittsburgh, other than the occasional lonely cry of "Win number 7!" There have been plenty of external distractions for the fans and football team provided by the BCS rankings.
There have also been distractions that the fans donít see. Interview requests are pouring into Blacksburg like water over Niagara Falls. It must be nearly impossible for the coaches and players to deal with the crush of hype that has descended on the Virginia Tech football program.
The coaches have expressed great concern over this game against Pittsburgh. Part of that concern is the Pitt team itself (although as weíll see, they have some glaring weaknesses), but a large part of that concern is over how to keep the Tech train on the track. Pitt is a "tweener" game, sandwiched between a give-it-your-all grudge match with Syracuse and the yearly brawl with West Virginia.
Watch this game with Pittsburgh closely, because the way the Hokies play it will tell you a lot about how serious they are about running the table, and how well theyíre focused on shutting out external distractions.
If the Hokies whip Pittsburgh soundly, that means they truly have their eyes on the prize.
Pittsburghís Year Thus Far
The year started out with what appears at first glance to be a ho-hum victory over Bowling Green, but the truth is, Bowling Green thrashed Pitt in every major statistical category except two: turnovers and final score. BG had four turnovers, Pittsburgh had none, and thanks to that statistic, the Panthers won.
Pitt's performance in the next game was much better, as they fought Penn State to a standstill. The two teams were tied 10-10 going into the fourth quarter, and a blocked 52-yard field goal by PSU's LaVar Arrington late in the game preserved the win for the Nitanny Lions. The most remarkable stat of the game was that Pitt held Penn State to 65 yards rushing on 41 carries. It was the first of many impressive defensive performances against the run this year for Pittsburgh.
Perhaps suffering a let down, Pitt struggled to beat lightly-regarded Kent in the next game. It was the 16th loss in a row for the Golden Flashes, who actually battled Pitt to a statistical standstill. The Panthers' run defense went back into the tank, among other things, and Pitt gave up 181 yards rushing and 432 yards total to sad-sack Kent. If Pitt hadn't gotten touchdown runs of 61 and 57 yards from Kevan Barlow, who rushed for 206 yards on the day, they might have lost.
The Panthers righted their ship the next week against Temple, stomping the Owls 55-24 in a game that wasn't even that close. The Panthers led 55-10 at one point, and their run defense came alive again, giving up just 20 yards on 21 carries.
Against Syracuse, Pittsburgh fell behind 24-0 early in the second half and almost pulled the miracle comeback. In the end, the margin of victory wound up being an early TD by Syracuse that was scored after a field goal snap went awry. The Pitt pass defense turned in its best performance of the year, only giving up 118 yards, but the run defense continued its rollercoaster ways, surrendering 187 yards on 45 carries.
Against Boston College, Pitt built a 13-7 lead but couldn't hold on to it. The Panthers ran the ball terribly, only picking up 45 yards on 33 carries, and an active passing game (28-40 for 346 yards and no interceptions) couldn't carry them to the win. For the second week in a row, the Panthers protected the ball and generally played well, but rolled up double-digit penalties, 12 for 87 yards.
Against Rutgers, after a scoreless first quarter, Pitt exploded for 24 second-quarter points and never looked back. The run defense returned to form, holding Jacki Crooks of Rutgers to (-3) yards on 13 carries, and only giving up 21 yards total on 30 carries. The final score could have been much worse, but the Panthers coughed up five turnovers, including four lost fumbles.
Boiling It All Down
To sum up the Panthers' season, it has been marked by inconsistency. Sometimes, the Panther run defense is awesome -- against Penn State, Temple, Boston College, and Rutgers, the Panther defense gave up just 220 yards on 115 carries. At other times, it's merely average. The Panthers currently rank a respectable 20th in the country against the run at 105.7 yards per game.
That's about all the good news there is for Pittsburgh's team statistics. Overall, Pitt gives up 351.4 yards per game, which means that their defense gives up a dead-last-in-the-Big-East 245.7 yards per game passing.
Offensively, the Panthers generate 380 yards and 29 points per game. Their pass offense (234 yards per game, 38th in the country), rushing offense (146 yards per game, 58th in the country), total offense (54th in the country), and scoring offense (39th in the country) all rank in the 35-to-60 range in the nation, neither distinguishing themselves or embarrassing themselves in those areas.
With the exception of the Rutgers game, Pitt takes good care of the football. If you take away the five turnovers against the Scarlet Knights, Pitt has turned it over only seven times in their other six games.
No doubt, the strength of Pitt's offense is its receivers. Latef Grim is first in the Big East in catches per game and yards per game (6.4 catches for 88 yards per game), while teammate Antonio Bryant ranks fourth and third in those two categories (4.6 catches for 73 yards per game). Thanks to them and their rapidly developing quarterback duo of Turman and Priestley, Pitt is first in the conference in passing offense (234 yards per game). Barlow is their best rusher, with 76.6 yards per game.
According to a Pittsburgh fan who visited the message board the other day, the Panthers are currently starting three freshman on their offensive line, which obviously could be a liability for them against Tech's defensive line.
It's hard to say how the Pittsburgh offense will do against Tech's defense. Whereas Turman is a junior, Priestley is a sophomore who is coming on strong. He split time with Turman early in the year, but got the lion's share of attempts against BC (where he went 20-30 for 291 yards for one TD), and he got all of the attempts against Rutgers. Priestley lit them up for 375 yards, going 25-36 with four TD's and one interception.
It appears the Priestley is maturing rapidly, and the Hokies will have to be on their guard to make sure that he doesn't have his coming out party against Tech. Priestley is the big unknown here. If Tech can make him look like the relatively inexperienced player that he is, then the Hokie defense will be in business.
Pittís run defense may be a little up-and-down, but overall, itís pretty good, giving up just over 100 yards a game. The primary reason itís good is that the Panthers employ the same defense as the Hokies, a defense that is geared towards stopping the run first and the pass second.
Itís well known that if you donít have experienced, talented players manning it, the Tech-style defense tends to give up big plays, particularly big passing plays. And Pitt has done just that, coughing up 246 yards per game passing to their opponents. Thatís dead last in the Big East and 95th in the country.
That doesnít bode well for a team that will be facing Michael Vick and company.
The Panthersí simply donít have the experience on their defense to run the scheme as well as Tech does. They have a true freshman starting at middle linebacker, and a walk-on backing him up. Hank Poteat is one of the best corners in the Big East, but the other cornerback is a freshman, and the Panthers have a freshman starting free safety, and a walk-on sophomore strong safety.
As we know, the scheme is a good one, and although it gives Pitt something to hang their hat on (a Top-20 rushing defense), theyíre not able to run it as well as a team like Tech.