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Pitt defense leads team to 17-13 win against Virginia Tech

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Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the headaches given by the offense today, Pitt was still able to pull out a 17-13 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Panthers move on to 3-1 on the season.

So what went right today? You can largely thank the defense for this one.

If you were watching (and even if you weren't since the final score was pretty indicative of it), the defense played very, very well. The defensive line, in particular, brought a ton of pressure with seven total sacks. Ejuan Price had a couple and, without having the benefit of the stats yet, I believe Darryl Render did as well. It wasn't just that they brought the pressure, though - they did it when it mattered. On the last two drives, Pitt piled up three sacks and a big interception effectively ending the game when there was nearly a fourth. That unit was unreal in crunch time and while we make a big deal of how Pitt often ends games, they actually went out and won it.

It certainly was more than the defensive line, however. The defense as a whole was extremely effective, allowing only 100 total yards and 13 points. There was the game-ending interception by Mike Caprara on the Hokies' last offensive play. Terrish Webb struggled a little at times but had a big pick earlier in the quarter. Avonte Maddox had a nice interception in the first half. It was a group effort and those guys won the game.

I expected the defense to eventually turn around under Pat Narduzzi, but I'd be shocked if I thought it would happen this quickly. The unit is impressive and playing very well right now. As Narduzzi said after the game, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin had a very good plan for today. Conklin was one guy I questioned a bit when he was hired, but there's no question that he knows what he is doing. Imagine what this unit will do once they bring in some better players, too - it's downright scary, to be honest.

For as strong as the defense was, however, the offense was equally unimpressive.

Were they hideous? That might be a tad harsh. Qadree Ollison had a big game with 122 yards on 19 carries, buoyed by two long runs, including his sole touchdown coming out of halftime to give Pitt an important 10-point lead. Tyler Boyd didn't go off and had a big drop in the fourth quarter, but had several key catches and was an important safety valve. Outside of a fumble (that was recovered by Pitt), quarterback Nathan Peterman took care of the ball. If nothing else, they didn't give the game away. But there really wasn't much accomplished on offense.

We can gripe all day about the myriad of questionable play calls on offense by coordinator Jim Chaney. From bizarre running plays in passing situations, to utterly conservative calls, to not utilizing Chad Voytik on short-yardage situations, to not targeting Tyler Boyd more early on ... I just wasn't real pleased with many of the decisions that were made. And here's the thing - I'm not even one of those guys that typically goes off on playcalling. But I find myself baffled by many of the calls that come in to the offense week after week. The fact that it stands out as so obvious to me is frightening.

Beyond all of that, my biggest problem with the offense was the sheer ineptitude in the fourth quarter. You're trying to close out a game - someone, somewhere has to make a play. Instead, all of the pressure went to the defense. Thankfully, they came through - but if you are expecting every offense that Pitt faces to be as disastrous as the Hokies were in the second half today, you're kidding yourself. The defense can't take it all themselves down the stretch.

After halftime, the offense was a complete disaster outside of Ollison's early heroics that led to the team's only second-half points. There was the fumble by Ollison in Pitt territory that gave three points to Virginia Tech. Then there were back-to-back punts. A blocked field goal was sandwiched between three drives that resulted in punts. I mean, you've got to do something, right?

It's pretty clear at this point that, while the offense may improve, the defense is leading the way this season and (short of a James Conner return) will have to continue to do so if they want to accomplish much of anything. The playcalling is stale, the running game is largely average, and the quarterback play spotty. This is the defense's show an this game proved it.

On the quarterback front (since that's always an important topic), I don't think we learned much more about Nathan Peterman today. I was very encouraged to see that he didn't throw an interception since playing against the Hokies on the road in bad weather was pretty much a recipe for disaster. But at the same time, he threw the ball only 15 times. Some credit has to go to him since Virginia Tech threw three of them and he could have been worse. At the same time, he didn't do much more than not give the game away. Fortunately, that's all that was necessary today.

One thing that was interesting was that the coaching staff has repeatedly made a huge deal out of the offense being stagnant under Voytik, causing the switch to Peterman. But that's exactly what it was under Peterman in the second half. I still don't advocate a switch back to Voytik right now since I think that Peterman is their guy and if that's the case, he needs reps. But if the idea is to play the guy that's hot (or take the guy out that isn't doing anything on offense), I'm not sure how Voytik doesn't at least get a look on a series since the offense couldn't generate very much in the second half today.

Situationally, I wasn't real thrilled with what they did, either. Voytik remained on the bench for 3rd down and short downs when he would really be an asset (think something like a Wishbone option - I'd love to see that). Also, as I said entering the game, Pitt needed to make his use unpredictable and that didn't happen. He was in there on several plays, but didn't attempt a single pass. Eventually, defenses are going to be ready when he come into games if that doesn't change and know that a running play is coming. If they're going to continue using him, it can't be merely be on designed runs. The coaches still have to figure his usage out, in my opinion.

As a closing thought on the game, I think Pitt also got a big assist from the weather and schedule on this one. I don't know that the wet conditions helped Pitt all that much but that combined with a noon start really resulted in a lackluster crowd. Some of them my have stayed home after the team's debacle last week against East Carolina, but even the ones that were there were uncharacteristically muted. Enter Sandman got people sort of involved at kickoff but the crowd, which is often a hostile one, was really out of it. "Let's go Pitt" chants were even audibly heard when Pitt got out to a 10-0 start. I can't help but think a game at night under good weather conditions would have made things a little more difficult.

So where are we now? The good news is that the team is in pretty good shape.

There are very real concerns on offense, but if you take the big picture, it's actually pretty good. Pitt is 3-1 at this point and that's where many of us figured they'd be at this stage of the season. They not only got the all-important split against Iowa and Virginia Tech in two road games, they won the far more important one of the two. It would have been nice to defeat the Hawkeyes, but the win over the Hokies in the ACC was just the one they needed more. The team is 1-0 in ACC play and with Virginia at home next week during Homecoming, they will have a great shot to start 4-1. If you wouldn't sign up for that at the beginning of the season, I'd question your intelligence.

Pitt has some problems on offense and still remains unsettled there, but at 3-1, the team is right where they need to be.

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