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Virginia Tech game provides Pitt with a big challenge ... and opportunity

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season began, Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi made a bold prediction at the annual kickoff luncheon that the team would reach the ACC Championship game. Now, nine games into the year, that is finally looking like more of a reality.

Pitt has an incredible opportunity with this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech. The Panthers host the Hokies in a key game and a victory would really bolster their hopes of winning the Coastal Division.

Currently, Pitt (4-1) is the leader of the pack, ahead of 4-2 Virginia and 3-2 Virginia Tech. While the lead over the Cavaliers is slim, the Panthers won their head-to-head matchup last week, so they’ve got a little more breathing room there. But the Hokies are breathing right down their necks.

The formula for Pitt is still somewhat complicated, which is why I’ve kind of shied away from a comprehensive article about it. There are only three games left but still too many scenarios out there. The Panthers could possibly take the Coastal with as little as one win or can do it with two, if one of those wins is against Virginia Tech. If Virginia Tech wins this weekend, they would be tied with the Panthers in conference and would hold the tiebreaker advantage, so Pitt would need help. If the Hokies would then win their final two games (Virginia and Miami), they would win the Division. In other words, while the Panthers are in decent shape, nothing is certain. I don’t expect Virginia Tech to run the table but I also didn’t expect to be leading the Division at this time, either.

Pitt has had better overall records at this stage of the season under Narduzzi. But they have not been in a better position to challenge for an ACC title. Pitt not only controls its own destiny the rest of the way, but they are probably the odds on favorite to win the Coastal.

This is one of those situations that Pitt simply has to cash in. That’s not because they can’t field a better team than they have this year. Rather, it’s because the rest of the Division will not often be as ripe for the picking as it is right now. Virginia Tech and Miami are generally the heavyweights and both have looked downright bad at times this season. Expecting those teams to remain as down as they are isn’t all that realistic. That’s to say nothing of the rest of the conference, which has had other teams step up before with nice seasons. This is about as good of an opportunity that Pitt might have in the near future and they’ve got to take advantage.

That might not necessarily be as easy as it sounds.

With Pitt on a mini-roll here, I think the tendency in recent days has been to underestimate Virginia Tech. Part of that is based on the enthusiasm surrounding the Panthers but part is also about what the Hokies have done. They lost to Old Dominion earlier in the year. They weren’t competitive against Notre Dame. Their best win is probably against an average Duke team. They were blown out by Georgia Tech. Overall, they haven’t been very inspiring at all.

All of that said, I fully expect them to come out like gangbusters because, like Pitt, they are right there for a Division title. And while you can’t throw out what they’ve done this year, I think you can explain some of it. Notre Dame has beaten everyone they’ve played. And Georgia Tech is a difficult team to prepare for because of the strange offense they run. A third loss is to Boston College, a ranked and legitimately decent team. I’m not saying the Hokies are an extremely difficult opponent that Pitt can’t beat with it’s best shot. But it quite easily could require their best shot to come out on top. I get the sense that a lot of fans expect to win this one with little trouble and are overlooking the fact that Virginia Tech is a really dangerous team.

Virginia Tech hasn’t scored a ton of points this year but the one thing they do pretty well is throw the ball. And, despite the recent gains Pitt’s secondary has made, that’s still got to be a concern. Quarterback Ryan Willis has two 300-yard games this year and a third where he tallied 281 yards. That’s even more impressive considering he’s only played five full games as the starter as he took the place of the injured Josh Jackson. That included a great game with 309 yards and a couple of touchdowns against Notre Dame. On the season, Willis has 13 touchdowns to only four picks and has been playing pretty well, despite the losing the Hokies have been doing.

Virginia Tech certainly has issues. They don’t run the ball as well as Pitt and their defense has, at times, been pretty abysmal. Their kicking game is also shaky beyond 40 yards, where they’ve been only 2-5 this season. But the Hokies’ passing game is solid and, aside from maybe their own passing game the last two years, defending the aerial game is the thing that has been the Panthers’ biggest problem under Narduzzi.

Typically, the adage of ‘one game at a time’ thrown out by coaches is tiresome to hear. But in this case, it’s really applicable. We won’t know more about the Panthers’ Division fate until after Saturday’s game and it is very much a step by step process. The first step is defeating a more than capable Virginia Tech team this weekend.

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