BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech came out today and showed why its defense belongs in the discussion for best in the country. The Hokies absolutely overwhelmed Pitt's offense, sacking quarterback Tom Savage eight times en route to a 19-9 victory. Here's a link to my quick game story on the P-G website, and make sure to pick up tomorrow's paper for a full recap plus reaction from players and coaches. For now, here are three thoughts to wrap up the day...
- Pass protection needs to be a focus going forward. This one's pretty obvious. For the second game in a row, Pitt gave up way, way too many sacks. After just six through three games, the Panthers gave up seven to Virginia and eight to Virginia Tech. The eight sacks today would almost be excusable as an aberration against a very good defense, but the fact that protection has been an issue for two weeks in a row makes it look more like a theme. It would be wrong to assign all the responsibility to the offensive line, but it would be equally wrong to say that they're not the most responsible unit for the problems. The common theme with both Virginia and Virginia Tech was that defenses were able to use quick defensive end/linebacker hybrids (Max Valles for Virginia and Dadi Nicolas for Virginia Tech) to speed rush off the edge and beat Pitt's tackles.
At the same time, though, there were a couple of sacks today (especially the one immediately following Savage's 48-yard pass to Devin Street at the end of the first half) that were totally on Savage. He needs to get the ball out quicker, especially when he knows he's getting pressured.
I don't know what the solution is (if I did, I'd be a coach). It's probably a combination of smarter route packages to get the ball out quicker, more effective chips and help by tight ends and running backs off the edge and just straight-up better blocking by Pitt's offensive line. The good news is that Pitt won't face a defense as good as Virginia Tech's the rest of the season, the bad news is that they will face several defenses as good or better than Virginia's. It's not just this one game that's worrisome, it's the trend that appears to be developing along the offensive line.
- But it's hard to pass block when there's no running threat. In both games, the problems with pass protection can be directly linked to the fact that Pitt had virtually no running game. In fact, the Panthers haven't run the ball effectively since the first half against Duke. It didn't help that James Conner left this one early with a shoulder injury, but this offense needs to have a running game and successful playaction passing game so linebackers can pin their ears back and blitz at will on third-and-long.
Chryst pointed after the game to third-down conversions, of which Pitt was 4 of 14. I actually think the problem starts earlier, on first down. When Pitt can't run the ball on first down, they tend to find themselves in more third-and-longs (obviously). Third down conversions are a nice stat to point to, but there's a big difference between 3rd-and-2 and 3rd-and-10 (which the Panthers faced plenty of today). Most of Pitt's successful rushes this season have been to the edge, with not a whole lot coming up the middle. Maybe that's something to look at going forward.
Now, when you get a 3rd-and-1 and call a bootleg for Savage (like Pitt did in the first quarter) I'm not really sure what to say.
It's also easy to say you didn't get enough chances because of a poor third-down success rate, but I also think there's some value in running the ball on sticking with the run, even if you aren't successful right away. Pitt only had 14 rushing attempts by its running backs today, in a game that was a one- or two-score game pretty much the whole way through. There's a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but I wouldn't say Pitt committed to the running game today. It wasn't successful, so they went elsewhere. Sometimes, there's value in continuing to pound it even if you aren't successful right away, because eventually you can wear a defense (even one as good as Virginia Tech's) down.
- The defense might end up being OK. On a positive note, the defense had a pretty good game today against a much-improved Logan Thomas. Thomas has looked light night-and-day different from last year these last three games. His touchdown pass, even though Anthony Gonzalez got a bit lost in coverage, was a thing of beauty. Most importantly, he didn't make mistakes and turn the ball over. Still, Pitt's defense stood firm when it had to in the red zone, and limited Virginia Tech to five field goal attempts. Aaron Donald was a monster, with two sacks and another tackle for loss, and Todd Thomas was all over the place with 12 tackles. There's certainly room for improvement, and Virginia Tech converted some frustrating third-and-longs today, but overall the defense is miles ahead of where it appeared to be after the Duke game.
Donald and Thomas, if they play like they did today, are a good anchor for the defense. The secondary is still talented and experienced, and ultimately I think this unit is going to be all right. They held the Hokies to 76 rushing yards and were even able to get pretty good pressure on Thomas at one point. For whatever reason, it still doesn't quite look like last year's defense, but it's definitely making strides.