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At First Glance: Pitt vs. Virginia Tech Preview

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Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Purely from the fan's point of view, bye weeks aren't a lot of fun. But as someone that maintains a blog 24/7/365, I can't tell you how much the break is appreciated. Frankly, it was just good to not have to obsess over how Pitt was going to fare and just kick back and relax last weekend. This isn't another bye week, but since Pitt plays Virginia Tech on Thursday night, it will at least mean another weekend of some free time - and that's appreciated.

Pitt has one of its biggest games of the season coming up on Thursday against the Hokies. That term gets thrown around a whole lot, but this really is a big one of sorts for the Panthers.

For starters, if the team is going to have any chance of winning the Coastal Division, this is essentially a 'must win.' There are a lot of games to be played, but having already lost to Virginia, there's little margin left for error. Winning the Division might seem like a pipe dream, but that's obviously the team's goal. Lose on Thursday and it's really hard to see that happening.

Also, like it or not, Pitt still has quite a bit of work to do to even reach a bowl game. Needing three wins with games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Miami, it's pretty easy to see there are no guarantees there. Even a team like the Tar Heels that are struggling a little and are 2-4 still rank 27th in offense, putting up nearly 40 points a game. Pitt can still reach a bowl with a loss to the Hokies, but it gets even harder.

Just talking about needing to scrape by to get to a bowl is, well, pretty depressing - especially considering the schedule Pitt was dealt. But it beats the alternative of not even getting the extra game and extra practices that come along with it. It's where we're at, folks.

Finally, Pitt desperately needs to end the skid they're on. Having lost three straight games after a 3-0 start, there's not much confidence surrounding the program right now. The Panthers gave some hope with a strong second half in the Virginia game, but a loss is a loss is a loss. Plus, that doesn't exactly make up for blowing a lead against Iowa and not getting off the ground against Akron.

While Pitt needs a win, the bad news is that one won't come easy. Pitt fortunately gets the game at home, but this still has the look of a difficult game.

The Hokies have been up and down, but nearly as badly as Pitt has. An earlier loss to East Carolina doesn't look nearly as bad now as the Pirates are 5-1 and a top 20 team with their only loss to South Carolina. Virginia Tech also lost to Georgia Tech but the Yellow Jackets are also 5-1, just suffering their first loss to a 5-1 Duke team. On top of that, the Hokies won at Ohio State and were last seen doubling up North Carolina, 34-17.

Pitt's offense will be tested by the Hokies' 23rd ranked defense. Statistically, the Panthers' defense is actually ranked higher (17th), but as we've discussed over and over, Pitt hasn't faced good offenses yet. Virginia Tech has had a more challenging schedule and there's little doubt that their defensive credibility holds a little more weight. The offense did some good things against Virginia, such as finding the tight end a bit more, but still remain somewhat of a question mark.

The Panthers will need to get James Conner going a bit to have much success passing the ball. And as Jim wrote recently, we could even see some of his carries spread around a little. Conner has failed to reach 100 yards in each of the past two games and also hasn't gotten into the end zone. The Hokies' run defense, giving up just under 109 yards per game, isn't quite as stingy as Virginia's - but it still ranks in the top 20. Conner vs. Virginia Tech's front seven could be a key to the game.

The good news for the Panthers is that Virginia Tech's offense hasn't proven to be anything special yet. The team ranks right around the middle of the FBS in terms of passing yards, rushing yards, and total scoring, and like Virginia, doesn't appear to do any one thing on offense incredibly well.

The Hokies have been incredibly spotty at quarterback with junior Michael Brewer leading the way. He's had some big passing games, but his 11 interceptions already prove the passing game has some weaknesses. Brewer's thrown at least one pick in every one of the six Virginia Tech games this year and in four of them, has been picked off at least twice. There's some hope for the secondary to force some mistakes if the defensive line gets some pressure on him.

One player you won't get to see is local product Shai McKenzie. Pitt lost out to Virginia Tech for his services and as a freshman, he was having a decent year this season until a torn ACL put him out of action.

The big thing for me is to see what kind of momentum Pitt carries into the game. They had the big second half against Virginia, but have now been sitting idle as the Hokies have. Pitt really needs to come into the game and start off well. Getting into a hole against Virginia was too much to overcome and it will probably be a similar situation against the Hokies if they start out poorly again.

The home field/weekday night thing is certainly an advantage to Pitt. Virginia Tech's struggles in passing the ball are encouraging as well. But the Panthers' offense hasn't exactly been clicking, either, and at first glance, this will be a difficult game for the team to win.

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