It’s the biggest game of the year for Pitt (5-2, 2-1 ACC) to-date on Thursday (yes, tomorrow) when Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-1) comes to town trying to retain control of the ACC Coastal Division. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Heinz Field. The game will be aired on ESPN. What better person to get some insight on the Hokies than from a beat writer who knows them well?
1. How would you describe the major differences in this offense with new head coach Justin Fuente, and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen? What are they best at? Where are the weaknesses?
Bitter: The Hokies were almost stuck in a time warp offensively for most of the first part of the century, and although the scheme was modernized a little under the previous coordinator Scot Loeffler, it was still a pro-style that hearkened back to older days, as you’d expect under Frank Beamer. Fuente and Cornelsen’s offense is like all the modern day hurry-up spreads that use multiple receivers on every play, eliminate positions like tight end and fullback for inside receivers and H-backs, hand it to a variety of players using all sorts of misdirection and can crank the pace at times. Tech hasn’t really gone as fast as Fuente’s offenses at Memphis did -- it’s still the first year in the scheme and adjusting to things, after all -- but there have been times when the Hokies have gone fast. It’s a major leap forward from an offense that a couple years ago ESPN analyst Todd McShay said was 10-15 years out of date.
Even though Fuente’s primary goal is to be a team that can run the ball and throw off play-action, it’s kind of been the opposite this year, up until last week against Miami. Quarterback Jerod Evans, a junior college transfer, has been everything the Hokies have hoped for, an accurate thrower who has been careful with his passes and can run when needed. It’s brought into play Tech’s standout trio of receivers, Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges. That’s the strength of the team.
But the key to this offense is getting the ground game going. It hasn’t really hit its stride often this year, finally getting into gear last week against Miami when the Hokies ran for a season-high 251 yards. In that game, running back Travon McMillian finally churned out some yards, Evans nearly had 100 yards and plenty of other players contributed. Until that game, though, the Hokies hadn’t run the ball with much consistency. Some of that falls on the line. Some of it falls on everyone else for making poor reads or not blocking well on the perimeter. It hasn’t been as bad as the last few years, but it has been nowhere close to what Fuente wanted. When this offense is really humming, it’s when Tech finds a good run-pass balance.
2. Explain to us how this Virginia Tech team could beat North Carolina and Miami in such convincing fashion, yet lose to Syracuse? From the outside, looking in, it's a strange pattern to grasp?
Bitter: It’s mystery to me too, although I have some theories. I thought Tech had closed the book on those kind of major letdown games, which were commonplace in the later Beamer years (see the East Carolina loss after upsetting eventual national champ Ohio State in 2014). But the Carrier Dome tripped up the Hokies like it did back in the teams’ Big East days. It’s hard to describe other than it’s just one of those places where Tech doesn’t play well and, bigger picture, was a clear-cut trap game, featuring a struggling Atlantic Division opponent marooned in a run of games against Coastal contenders UNC, Miami and Pitt. It’s possible the Hokies just overlooked the Orange. (And to credit Syracuse, it played pretty well in that game, hardly like the team that’s struggled to find its footing in the ACC.)
But that was really Virginia Tech’s first game in a hostile environment. The Battle at Bristol, though largely a Tennessee crowd, was still a neutral site game with tens of thousands of Hokies fans in the stands. North Carolina was a road environment rendered moot by Hurricane Matthew, with only the extremely brave (or insane) choosing to sit through that downpour. The Carrier Dome wasn’t full, but it was loud, especially when Syracuse got off to such a good start. The Hokies did not respond well, which makes you wonder how they’ll play at a place like Heinz Field, which historically has given them trouble.
3. It sounds like Bud Foster’s defense is once again resembling the defense from the team’s glory years. What stands out most to you, and how hard of a time will Pitt have running the ball against this front?
Bitter: It’ll be a challenge up front. That’s always Foster’s primary goal is to slow down a team’s running game and make it one-dimensional. Obviously it has varying success at that -- and Pitt has run the ball effectively at times against the Hokies in recent years -- but that’s where it starts every week. Really, only Tennessee has had much success on the ground against the Hokies this year, and even that was largely in part due to a running quarterback doing damage (if there’s a Kryptonite to Bud’s defense, it’s that). The front seven’s been much-improved against the run this year, a little bigger and more active on the line and more consistent at linebacker, where Andrew Motuapuaka has improved drastically and Tremaine Edmunds has had a breakout year. They probably haven’t faced an offensive line as good at Pitt’s this year, however, so this will be a challenge from a physical standpoint.
As for the strength of this team, Foster’s been good when he can get opponents in must-throw situations. If the Hokies are good on first and second down -- which they have been this year -- they can send the house at the quarterback. They sacked (Miami QB) Brad Kaaya 8 times last week. He’d been sacked only 7 times the first six weeks. Couple that pass rush with a secondary that’s doing more pre-snap shifts and playing more zone defense to create confusion and it’s been a much improved group from last season, when injuries and inexperience forced Tech to play almost exclusively man defense. Opponents identified that and picked it apart accordingly. That predictability isn’t there this year for the Hokies, which is what Foster’s groups were like back in their heyday when they led the nation in total defense.
4. QB Jerod Evans sounds like a handful for Pitt's defense, as a player adept in the passing game, and scrambling for yards. How would you assess his effectiveness this season, and his ceiling? In other words, is he continuing to get better?
Bitter: I think so. And part of that is simply because he’s only played 7 games in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A lot of this stuff he’s just doing and seeing for the first time, at least at this level. He certainly raises the ceiling for this offense, which hasn’t had someone running the show like this at Tech since Tyrod Taylor. And even then, Taylor wasn’t as accomplished of a passer as Evans until his senior year. Evans has 19 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, which, if he continues, will be among the best TD-to-INT ratios in school history. He’s been accurate, completing 62.9 percent of his passes. A Tech quarterback hasn’t done that since Bryan Randall in 2002. He’s also been prolific, on pace to shatter the Hokies’ single-season passing touchdown record by 11 if he keeps this up for 13 games. And that’s all before you get to his running skills. His 417 rushing yards are second on the team and he’s tied for the team lead with 3 rushing touchdowns.
Bottom line: the Hokies are ACC contenders because Evans brings something to the quarterback position that only Michael Vick, Randall and Taylor have for Tech in the last 17 years. Fuente has a touch with quarterbacks of all kinds. He coached Andy Dalton at TCU and helped develop Paxton Lynch into a first-round pick at Memphis of all places. He clearly can teach the position. Evans just seems to be his latest pupil, and the quarterback’s dual-threat skill set makes him especially dangerous in this offense.
5. Of the key injured players, who are you expecting might be back in the lineup and what kind of difference will they make?
Bitter: The two key guys that missed last week’s game were defensive end Ken Ekanem (upper extremity) and defensive tackle Nigel Williams (ankle). Ekanem was upgraded to probableon Tuesday’sinjury report after being questionable last week, so I’d imagine he’ll play. When healthy, he’s Tech’s best pass rusher off the edge, someone with 18.5 career sacks. Redshirt freshman Trevon Hill filled in admirably for him last week, getting the first 1.5 sacks of his career, but against an offensive line as physical and experienced as Pitt’s, the Hokies will need all the veteran leadership and bulk they can get up front. Ekanem brings both.
Williams is still questionable with an ankle injury, the same designation he had last week. I’d figure that after a week of rest, he’d have a decent shot of playing, and Foster said Monday that he thought both Ekanem and Williams would be good to go. The fact that he wasn’t upgraded Tuesday probably says that he’s truly a 50-50 shot, though. Fortunately for Tech, that’s one of its deepest positions. Woody Baron might be the team MVP right next to him at tackle. Sophomore Ricky Walker filled in well last week, and 330-pound redshirt freshman Tim Settle is gaining confidence each week. Even Steve Sobczak got in on the action last week against Miami. So while Williams being active would be a boost, the cupboard isn’t bare there for the Hokies.