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ACC Spotlight: Pitt vs Virginia Tech

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

At one point, it appeared as though Pitt would compete for an ACC Championship this season while Virginia Tech might stop playing due to so many positive COVID-19 tests. But with just a few weeks remaining in the 2020 season, the Panthers and Hokies enter their matchup in the exact same place — with a 4-4 record.

With each program having lost at least three conference games — and without the luxury of playing in the ACC Coastal this year — both Pitt and Virginia Tech are out of the championship race, but this matchup remains a pivotal one for each school. Neither wants to lose to its old Big East rival either, and Pitt should be particularly motivated since it suffered a shutout defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech last November.

This rivalry hasn’t been decided by less than a touchdown in four years. These two close foes might end that streak Saturday, though, at least on paper, Pitt also appears to have the slight edge.

Of course, games aren’t played on paper, but what the Hokies like to do — run the ball — the Panthers love to stop. Despite losing four of the last five, Pitt remains second in the country in run defense, allowing 78.8 rushing yards per game. On a per carry basis, Pitt is No. 1 in the nation, giving up 2.2 yards per rush.

Based on those high standards, Pitt is actually coming off a poor game at stopping the run. Last week, Florida State gained 146 rushing yards while averaging 4.2 yards per carry, both of which were season highs against Pitt.

But even so, the Panthers beat the Seminoles, 41-17, to end a four-game losing streak. Plus, including Florida State’s moderate success, Pitt still remains the top Power 5 team statistically against run this year.

The Panthers run defense will arguably face its biggest test of the season this Saturday, as the Hokies enter this week as the top rushing team in the ACC. They have rushed for 200 yards in every game but one and averaged 5.0 yards per carry in all but two contests.

The problem for Virginia Tech, however, is in those games where it couldn’t run, the offense struggled to move the ball. Last week against Miami, the Hokies rushed for a season-low 160 yards and 3.9 yards per carry. That wasn’t quite enough as it led to 24 points in a 1-point loss.

Against Wake Forest in October, Virginia Tech ran for 210 yards but 4.9 yards per carry. Quarterback Herndon Hooker gained 98 of those rushing yards.

That’d be enough for a lot of top schools around the country to win, but that rushing total led to only 16 points. Hooker completed just 17 of 34 passes for 223 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in a 23-16 defeat.

The ground game has to dominate in order for the Hokies to score a lot of points, and it’s tough to see that happening against Pitt. It also helps the Panthers that offensively, they have their field general back in Kenny Pickett.

He returned last week and although he didn’t have a touchdown pass, Pickett completed 77.8 percent of his passes for an average of 7.8 yards per attempt with no interceptions. With Pickett behind center, the Panthers are 4-2 in 2020 and both losses were by one point. Without Pickett, Pitt is 0-2 and is averaging 11 points per game.

Pitt doesn’t possess the stout offensive line to enforce its will on the ground as Virginia Tech does. The Panthers are 13th in the ACC in rushing yards per game with just a little more than 100 per contest.

But Pitt won’t let its opponent run either, and the Panthers defensive front dominates against the pass too. Pitt leads the country in tackles for loss and is No. 2 in the nation in sacks per game. With the better passer behind center as well, Pitt looks poised to move back above the .500 mark this weekend.

Prediction: Pitt 30, Virginia Tech 27