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Game Preview:  Pitt at Virginia Tech
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 10/26/00
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Pitt Looks to Make Their Mark in Lane Stadium.

Things are finally starting to come together at Pittsburgh, after all these years. In late 1996, the Panthers released Coach Johnny Majors, who had gone 12-32 in a disastrous four years at the helm, and hired Walt Harris away from Ohio State, where he had been serving as the Buckeyes' quarterbacks coach.

The change paid immediate dividends. After five straight losing seasons, the Panthers went 6-6 in 1997, including victories over Miami and Virginia Tech, and went to the Liberty Bowl, their first bowl in 8 years.

Alas, Pitt was pasted in that Liberty Bowl, 41-7 by Southern Miss. Things didn't get much better in 1998, when the Panthers nosedived to a 2-9 season.

In 1999, though, the team got back on track. They went 5-6 in a season that included narrow losses at Penn State (20-17), Syracuse (24-17), and at Boston College (20-16). The Panthers also scared the Virginia Tech Hokies to death at home, rolling up 427 yards passing in a 30-17 loss to the Hokies. So Pitt was 14 points away from an 8-3 season, and on a different night, might have beaten the Hokies to go 9-2. Their other two losses were lopsided affairs to Miami (33-3) and WVU (52-21).

So Pittsburgh entered the year 2000 with high hopes, and they have not been disappointed. The Panthers are currently 5-1 and have victories over Penn State and Boston College to their credit, with their only loss coming at Syracuse in overtime.

Pitt is hanging around the fringes of the Top 25 (#28 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll and #27 in the AP Poll). They're a team on the verge of breaking through, and they're looking for a big win to make a statement.

And I'm sure they think a road win at #2 Virginia Tech would fit the bill quite nicely.

Pittsburgh's Season to Date
(home games in maroon, road games in orange)

Sept. 2  Pittsburgh 30, Kent 7
Sept. 9  Pittsburgh 34, Bowling Green 16
Sept. 16  Pittsburgh 12, Penn State 0
Sept. 23  Pittsburgh 29, Rutgers 17
Oct. 7  Syracuse 24, Pittsburgh 17
Oct. 21  Pittsburgh 42, Boston College 26 

With the high expectations the Panthers had coming into the season, they're satisfied with their 5-1 start, but a look at the scores reveals a Pitt team that so far has not been operating at what they might consider peak performance.

For one, the Pittsburgh offense, which scared the bejeebies out of the Hokies last year, hasn't been putting up the points that the fans, players, and coaches expected. They are concerned about the low scoring totals of 30, 34, and 29 points against lightweights Kent, Bowling Green, and Rutgers. More on that later. But the defense, for the most part, has been doing well, and we'll break that down later, too.

But all in all, as good as their record is, those around the Pittsburgh program are still waiting for the Panthers to start clicking on all cylinders, and they feel the closest they've gotten is last week's Boston College game.

They're a good team, and if they really pull it together, they'll be a very good team.

Pittsburgh Offense

As a team, Pittsburgh's offensive statistics look like this:



Big East Rank


Rushing Offense

136.2 ypg


67 85

Passing Offense

278.8 ypg


20 33

Total Offense

415.0 ypg


24 70

Scoring Offense

27.3 ppg


51 62

You can see that from last year, the Panthers have improved statistically in every category, in terms of national ranking. But they don't feel yet that their offense has peaked.

In his weekly press conference this week, Pitt Coach Walt Harris seemed very pleased with his offense in last week's Boston College game, a 42-26 Pitt victory. "It was exciting to see the offense finally step up and play like we've expected them to play, and they hadn't played yet. It's great to see that," he said.

A look at Pitt's scores shows that the high-powered Pitt offense does indeed seem to have been underperforming. The 42 points they hung on Boston College is the first time they've been over 34 points all year, despite having gone up against Kent, Bowling Green, and Rutgers. Contrast that with the Hokies, who have scored under 34 points just once, this past week against Syracuse.

Walt Harris is an excellent coach, and despite the improvement over last year, he expects more from his team. Tech needs to hope that he doesn't get his "more" in Blacksburg this weekend.

Part of the decline in Pitt's offense can be traced to the diminished stats of senior flanker Latef Grim. Grim caught 75 passes for 1106 yards last year, an average of 14.7 yards per catch, and he average just over 100 yards receiving per game, 11th in the NCAA.

This year, Grim only has 22 catches for 308 yards, despite playing in all six of Pitt's games. This equates to just 3.67 catches per game, versus 6.82 last year. The average yards per catch (14.0) is about the same as last year.

The slack, and more, has been picked up by fellow wideout Antonio Bryant, who has increased his yards per game average from 76.7 to a league-leading 140.6. Bryant has 35 catches for 703 yards (20.1 yards per reception), a Big-East best, as is his 7 catches per game (Bryant has only played in 5 games this year).

Grim's loss has been Bryant's gain. Here's how Grim and Bryant have flip-flopped from last year to this year:


1999 stat

2000 stat






6.82 cpg

100.1 ypg

3.67 cpg

51.3 ypg


4.64 cpg

76.7 ypg

7.00 cpg

140.6 ypg


11.46 cpg

176.8 ypg

10.67 cpg

191.9 ypg

Harris seems to feel that the rushing game is what has been underperforming in his offense, and indeed, until Kevan Barlow ran for 209 yards on 25 carries against BC, the running game had not distinguished itself (how does 35 carries for 36 yards against Bowling Green sound?).

It was QB David Priestley who lit the Hokies up for 407 yards passing last year, but John Turman is the starter this year. Priestley still sees significant playing time, though: he has thrown 25% of Pittsburgh's passes this season. Here are the Pitt quarterbacks' stats:



















Pitt Totals*






* Backup Rod Rutherford has thrown one incompletion.

Note the excellent TD-to-interception ratio (14-3).  That's outstanding, and it's those kind of numbers that have put Turman (with an 11-2 ratio) at 4th in the country in passing efficiency.

The Pitt offensive line is a mix of youth and experience, anchored by starting center Jeff McCurley, a three-time letterman and senior. The left side is the most inexperienced, with two first-time starters there, a senior and a freshman. On the right side, the Panthers start two sophomores who both started as freshmen, so they have one year of starting experience under their belts.

Overall, the offensive line is a mixed bag, and that's probably why they have struggled with the running game. Pitt has given up 21 sacks in their 6 games, so maybe that's an area the rapidly improving Hokie defensive line (in particular Jim Davis) can exploit.

Make no mistake about it, folks, this is one seriously high-powered offense coming into Lane Stadium. If they get the running game going along with that passing game, look out.

Pittsburgh Defense

Pittsburgh uses the same defensive scheme as the Hokies, and they appear to be having pretty good success with it. The Panthers lost four of their starting front seven from last year, and yet they are ranked #8 in the country against the rush, and #25 in total defense. Here's the statistical breakdown for Pittsburgh:



Big East Rank


Rushing Defense




Passing Defense




Total Defense




Scoring Defense




It's obvious that the pass defense for Pittsburgh is what is bringing the total defensive ranking down. Their run defense and scoring defense are both very good, but their pass defense is struggling.

As you take a closer look at the Pitt defense, given that it is modeled on the Hokie defense, their statistical rankings start to make sense.

First, there is defensive end Bryan Knight (#57), a junior who is a great run defender and pass rusher. Knight is #2 in the Big East in tackles for loss (17 for 104 yards) and sacks (8.5 for 82 yards). He is second, of course, behind Syracuse's Dwight Freeney in both categories. On Pitt's team, Knight is #3 in total tackles.

Their other defensive end, Ryan Smith, is no slouch, either. He has 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, and ranks #5 in the team in total tackles.

Two defensive ends, ranked #3 and #5 on the team in tackles? When the attack defense is being run correctly, that's what you get: defensive ends making plays in both the running and passing games. Pitt is doing something right.

This is a team that makes a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage: they have 59 tackles for loss in 6 games, nearly 10 tackles per game behind the line of scrimmage (that stat includes 21 sacks, a decent total, but not outstanding).

So why is the pass defense so weak? Well, as you know, the attack defense puts the cornerbacks on an island, and if the cornerbacks aren't up to the task, a lot of passes get completed.

I haven't seen Pittsburgh play, but a look at their depth chart and their statistics reveal that their cornerbacks may be a weakness. Pitt's starting cornerbacks are sophomore Shawn Robinson and true freshman Shawntae Spencer. Their two-deep at cornerback is all freshman and sophomores.

This may or may not mean something. After all, Tech's Ronyell Whitaker is just a sophomore, and Eric Green is a true freshman, and they have performed well, with the exception of getting beaten deep for TD's against Syracuse.

Of Pitt's 8 interceptions, Spencer has 2, and Robinson has 4.

Another point to be made about the attack defense is that it often gives up large passing numbers, because it defends the run well, so opponents pass more. Just because a team gets a lot of yards in the passing game doesn't mean the defense isn't working. Just take a look at the Pitt/Tech game last year -- the Panthers had 427 yards passing and lost by nearly two touchdowns.

I'm talking in circles here, so let me get to my point: looking at the Pitt defense is like looking at the Tech defense. The Panthers defend the run very well, have active defensive ends, and tend to give up big passing yards without giving up points.

Pitt has young defensive backs who are able to make plays here and there, but they also give up well over 200 yards passing a game. If Tech can keep the Pitt defensive ends away from Michael Vick, Vick might have a good game passing.

Pittsburgh Special Teams

The Panthers have junior Nick Lotz handling placekicking and sophomore Jay Junko (what a cool name) doing the punting. Lotz is 8-13 on field goals, with a long of 48 yards. He is pretty consistent at all ranges. He has had only one field goal blocked.

Junko isn't that impressive as a punter. He is only averaging 35.9 yards per kick. Not bad, but not good. Pitt has punted 22 times and none have been blocked. Pitt's long-snapper is a redshirt freshman, Kurt Johnson. They only average 6.6 yards on punt returns, with a long of 16 yards and no TD's.

Pittsburgh averages a respectable 23.6 yards per kickoff return, with one TD, an 86-yarder.

Turnover Margin

I don't usually highlight this stat, but Pitt is eerily similar to Tech on this one, so I thought I would.

Pittsburgh is #76 in the country in turnover margin, with a margin of (-0.33). Until the Syracuse game, the Hokies were residing in that same territory, but have moved all the way up to #36 (+0.43) on the strength of that one game.

Pitt has an 8-3 advantage in interceptions over their opponents. The problem for the Panthers is that they give it back on fumbles. Pitt has lost 10 fumbles, and they have only recovered 3.

The Hokies have very similar turnover stats: an eye-popping 18 interceptions, with only 4 given up; just 2 fumble recoveries and a large 13 fumbles lost.

These two teams fumble a lot (23 fumbles lost) and pick off a lot of passes (26 interceptions). Turnovers could go a long way towards determining the outcome in this one. That's a no-brainer, I know, but these two teams like to fumble and pick the ball off a lot, and that's worth noting.

Outlook and Prediction

This is a great matchup, and a hard one to call. Pitt is a pass-oriented team that hasn't had much success running. Against that, Tech offers up a defense whose strength is against the run (99 ypg, #17 in the NCAA), and whose relative weakness is against the pass (193.6 ypg, #39 in the NCAA).

Tech is a running team (279.7 ypg, #4 in the NCAA) that doesn't pass often (147.1 ypg, #102 in the NCAA). Against that, the Panthers offer up a stout run defense (#8 in the NCAA) and relatively weak pass defense (#84 in the NCAA).

Breaking it down that way, you can assume that Pitt won't be able to run very well on Tech and will go with the passing game. They will probably do well with their passing game, and the key for Tech is to minimize the big plays and mount a pass rush (calling Jim Davis, calling Jim Davis...).

You can also assume that Tech will try to run the ball, and that they may or may not have success. I think you will see Tech rely more on the passing game in this contest. I doubt the Hokies will run over the Panthers, so they'll need Vick to complete some passes, and it will be interesting to see if Tech can combat the blitzes that Pitt will no doubt throw at them.

So, Pitt will pass a lot, and the Hokies must stop that. Tech will run some, but won't dominate with it, and when they go to the pass, Tech will have to stop the Pitt blitz and complete some passes. Michael Vick's ability to get outside the pocket and improvise could be more important in this game than it has been in any other game this year. It could be the difference.

To have a better chance at victory, Tech will need to press the special teams advantage and play the field position game. Assuming that Andre Davis is healthy and plays, a key to this game is his ability to help Tech win the field position war. He is a great punt returner; Pitt's punt returners are not.

Pitt is very well-coached and explosive, and the team is starting to buy into what Coach Harris is doing. They're starting to believe in themselves, and they're looking to come up with a big win that they can hang their helmets on as proof of how good they are. Don't underestimate the strength of Pitt's motivation in this game.

I think this will be a battle, and my first instinct is to call a similar margin to what I called in the Syracuse game, with a lower score, say, 27-21, Tech. I'll add a few points for Tech's home field advantage, though.

Virginia Tech 30, Pittsburgh 21.


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