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Virginia vs. Pitt Big Preview: Hoos go for three in a row on homecomings

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UVA slayed its road demons two weeks ago at Duke. Can they go 3-0 to start ACC play at home this week?

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos are coming off 2 straight wins and finally look like a real football team. They are also coming off a bye week, which was badly needed to help the team get healthy. This week, they begin a 3 game homestand with a Homecomings matchup against Pitt.

The Panthers are 4-2 (1-1), coming off a home win over Georgia Tech. They’ve also beaten Penn State, Villanova and Marshall. The 2 losses are on the road to UNC and Oklahoma State, both close games. None of those wins look great, but neither of those losses looks bad.

Studies have shown that playing Georgia Tech takes a physical toll on a team and can negatively affect their performance the following week. (OK, so there haven’t been any actual studies of this, but anecdotally, it might be true.) Whether that is true or not, coming off a bye week is better than playing anybody the previous week. So the Hoos have a bit of an advantage there.

If you don’t know James Conner’s story, it’s worth a read (this is his own words). The ACC player of the year in 2014, Conner missed last season while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, after undergoing surgery to repair his knee. The fact that he’s returned at all is impressive, and the fact that he’s still playing at a high level is even more impressive. Of course, once the whistle blows none of that matters. Defenders aren’t taking it easy on Conner because he had cancer, and I can’t imagine he’d want them to.

Here is the game information:

Who: Pitt Panthers
Where: Scott Stadium
When: 12:30 PM
TV: ACC Network (WDCA in the DC area)

Let’s check out the matchups.

Pitt on Offense

QB: #4 Nate Peterman
RB: #24 James Conner, #26 Chawntez Moss
WR: #10 Quadree Henderson, #85 Jester Weah, TE #83 Scott Orndoff

Pitt is a running team. They may be the most run-heavy unbalanced team excluding the triple option teams. Pitt is 19th in the nation in rushing and 102nd in passing. (Georgia Tech, a triple option team, is 26th in rushing and 125th in passing.) As a team, they are averaging over 37 points per game. Amazingly, that is just 6th in the ACC (Louisville leads the nation with 58 points per game). Perhaps even more amazingly, the Hoos 27 points per game (75th in the nation) is the their best mark since 2004.

Despite that unbalanced offense, Pitt is actually quite good at throwing the ball. They rank 36th in the nation in passing efficiency. So, Pitt is good at throwing and very good at running. They are 25th in the nation in yards per rush. Conner leads the team with 104 carries, and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry. That is good, but it isn’t great. His backup, Moss, averages 6.8 yards per carry. But the team’s second leading rusher is Henderson, the WR. He’s averaging over 11 yards per carry and had a 50 yard TD run against Oklahoma State. Peterman is also capable of picking up yards on the ground. He’s averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, but that includes 31 yards of sacks. His season long is a 30 yard rush.

The running game is, of course, led by Conner. In 2014, Conner rushed for 1765 yards and 26 TDs. He was actually recruited as a DE/LB. And he played DE from time to time during his freshman season. As you’d expect from a defensive player who checks in at 6’2” 235, Conner is a power runner. He’s not going to dance. He’s not going to juke. He’s going straight ahead. He doesn’t shy from contact. On the contrary, he runs to contact. During his big 2014 season, he led the nation in broken tackles. He’s a beast and it generally takes a team effort to bring him down. He hasn’t looked quite as powerful this year as he did in 2014, though that is to be expected after everything he’s been through.

Moss is a similar player to Conner. He’s a true freshman and has been gaining playing time as the season progresses. He’s not quite as big as Conner (5’11” 210), but his running style is similar. North-south. One cut and go. Breaking tackles.

All told, the Panthers have run the ball 240 times. They’ve thrown 140 times. Peterman has completed 65% of his passes, and averages 8.1 yards per attempt, good for 42nd in the nation. (As a comparison, Benkert averages 7.3 yards per attempts, which is 71st in the nation.)

Peterson is so efficient because of the running game. He’s very good at play action. When teams have to stack the box in order to slow down Conner, Peterman is going to get a lot of single coverage on the outside. With the LBs so focused on the running game, there are going to be guys open over the middle. This is where Henderson is dangerous. He runs a lot of underneath routes. Then he’ll turn upfield, where he’s immensely dangerous. Henderson is 5th in the nation in kick returns and though he doesn’t have enough punt returns to be eligible, he’d be 26th there. He’s great in the open field.

Though just 5’8”, Henderson weighs 190, so he’s strong. Still, his lack of size often means he struggles to get a clean release against press coverage. He’s so quick, though, that he’s able to generate space against press coverage on the underneath routes. He’s really not a deep threat though. The deep threat is Weah, at 6’3” 210. Weah leads the team with 348 yards receiving. The two WRs are tied with 17 receptions apiece, but Weah averages more than twice as many yards per reception. The Hoos have listed Bryce Hall and Juan Thornhill as their starting CBs. It would seem that Hall would line up against Weah, and give him a bit of a cushion. Then Thornhill would line up in press coverage against Henderson. The goal is to upset the timing of the short passes to Henderson, while also preventing big gains to Weah.

Of couse, we haven’t accounted for Orndoff. The TE has already surpassed his receptions total from last year. He’s mostly a possession guy, and he’s dangerous on short yardage and around the end zone. He has 10 TDs in his career, on just 37 receptions. He had a 74 yard TD against Georgia Tech last week. That play came on a seam pass where he beat the safety deep and then outran the defenders. That isn’t really his MO, but it shows what he’s capable of. The Hoos safeties obviously will be tasked with helping against Conner and the ground game, but must also be wary of that seam pass.

A major part of why Pitt’s offense is so good is their OL. Led by LT Adam Bisnowaty, the OL is a veteran unit with over 130 career starts between them. They have given up just 4 sacks on the year and obviously have been successful in run blocking as well. Bisnowaty could be a second round draft pick this year. Next to him is fellow senior Dorian Johnson, who may also be an early draft pick. Next to him is Alex Officer, who is just a junior, but will also play on Sundays. RT Brian O’neill made headlines last week with a 24 yard TD run on a trick play.

Getting Andrew Brown back on defense would be nice. His quickness off the snap means he can shut down some running plays before they even get started. He normally lines up on the left side of the defense, meaning the right side of the Pitt OL would be tasked with blocking him. That is the less experienced side of the Pitt OL. That, obviously, would push the Panthers to run the ball to the left, which is the strong side of their OL. That means the Hoos can shade to that side and hopefully keep those runs down. Brown also requires a double-team, which opens up lanes for Micah Kiser and co to help shut down the run.

Donte Wilkins likely will also require a double-team on many plays, especially runs up the gut. If Pitt has to double-team both Wilkins and Brown, that means there aren’t enough blockers left for Kiser, Zach Bradshaw and the two safeties. Those guys are going to have to make tackles.

Yes, Pitt’s offense is very good. They are going to score some points. The Hoos aren’t likely to completely shut down the ground game, but slowing it down may be enough. Slow it down and Peterman has to make plays with his arm. And though he’s capable of doing that, slowing down the ground game also removes play-action from the equation. That makes Peterman’s job even tougher. He’s thrown just 2 picks this year, but the Hoos showed against Duke that they are capable of making plays on the ball in the air. A couple of turnovers would really help shut down the explosive Panther offense.

Pitt on Defense

DL: DE #5 EJuan Price, DT #52 Shakir Soto
LB: OLB #23 Oluwaseun Idowu, MLB #30 Matt Galambos
DB: CB #38 Ryan Lewis, SS #9 Jordan Whitehead

Pitt’s defense may be even more unbalanced than their offense. They rank 10th in the nation in rushing defense and 124th in passing defense. Teams are averaging just 3.1 yards per rush against Pitt. However, keep in mind that college football counts sacks as rushing yards. And Pitt is 11th in the nation in sacks. They have 182 yards worth of sacks. Remove those 21 sacks and 182 lost yards, and teams are actually averaging about 4.5 yards per carry.

That isn’t to say that Pitt’s run defense isn’t good, but it isn’t necessarily elite. Marshall’s RB tandem rushed for 124 yards on 25 carries, nearly 5 yards per carry. The week prior, UNC never got anything going on the ground and Elijah Hood had 25 yards on 11 carries.

The strength of the Pitt defense is up the middle. Soto and fellow DT Tyrique Jarrett are both big guys who make plays. Neither of them are much in terms of pass rushing, but both are space eaters who can completely shut down the interior run game. Soto is 5th on the team in tackles, and 2nd with 5 TFLs. He has just 1 sack and 2 QB hurries.

The pass rush comes from the DEs and the OLBs. Price leads the team with 8.5 sacks. In fact, Price is 2nd in the nation in sacks, and first in the nation in sack yards. Price is also first in the nation in TFLs with 12.5 and first in tackle lost yards. Behind him in sacks is OLB Mike Caprara, who plays the “Money” LB, which is just a code for strong-side LB (Idowu plays “Star”, which is weak-side). CB Avonte Maddox is tied with Caprara with 2.5 sacks. Maddox, though, is likely out for this week’s game.

Although the Panthers get a majority of their sacks from the DL, they still like to bring pressure. As evidenced by Maddox’s 2.5 sacks, they like to bring the DBs. Still, other than Price, nobody on the team has more than 2 QB hurries. And as a team, they have just 3 INTs. And one of those is Maddox. Maddox’s replacement is going to be freshman Dane Jackson. He’s had limited action so far in his career. Playing against the Hoos multiple formation, multiple WR looks will be a trial by fire for him.

Lewis leads the team in tackles. You don’t often see CBs lead a team in tackles. But Lewis is all over the place. Teams know they can’t run inside against Pitt, so they try to run outside. That brings Lewis (and Maddox) into the play. With Maddox out, you can expect the Hoos to run away from Lewis. You can also expect the Hoos to throw a lot away from Lewis. That said, though Jackson is inexperienced, he may actually be the better cover man. Lewis is a career special teams guy who has played well in run support. But he can be beaten with the pass.

Whitehead is 2nd on the team in tackles, and he finished 1st last year. Whitehead is really the guy the Hoos need to pay attention to in the passing game. Galambos is also very solid in underneath pass coverage. Expect to see a lot of zone out of the Pitt defense, especially underneath. Galambos will cover the middle and he’s a solid tackler. He runs well, but he’s not very quick laterally. Getting him going the wrong way with some misdirection would open things up underneath for Smoke Mizzell or Olamide Zaccheaus to make a big play on a screen. Whitehead also gets some looks on offense, and has 6 carries this year for 70 yards. As often as not, though, he’s in as a decoy. Pitt has enough weapons on offense that they don’t need Whitehead.

None of Pitt’s DBs are big, with only Lewis hitting the 200 pound mark. The Hoos’ WRs are likely to get a cushion at the line at the beginning of the game. That means Benkert should have his quick passing game available. If this is successful, it will negate Pitt’s pass rush. In that case, you might see Pat Narduzzi try some press coverage. That would be a big advantage for the Hoos with their bigger WRs.

If the Hoos get into a short-yardage situation, do not expect runs up the middle. Pitt has been feasting on these plays all year. You simply can’t run inside against 650 pounds of DT. The Hoos tried it against UCONN and it cost them. Perimeter runs or quick passes are better bets on short yardage. Benkert has proven to be a very capable passer on thsose plays.

I’ve been calling for it all year, but this week is the time to see Benkert make some more plays with his feet. Pitt is going to be so concerned with the 3 and 4 WRs on the field that Benkert may see the field open up in front of him. He may be able to pick up some key first downs with his feet.

Conclusion

This game is likely to be a shoot-out. The Hoos have played 2 shootouts in a row, while Pitt has played in 5 in a row. Although the two offenses go about things differently, the results are often the same: touchdowns.

If the game comes down to a close affair, the Hoos may be in trouble. Pitt has a very good PK and the Hoos do not. A big special teams play may very well turn this game, whether that is a return TD or a blocked kick.

The Hoos are at home, on Homecomings and are riding high. Pitt is a very good team, but probably not as good as the Hoos’ next two opponents. It also keeps the season alive in terms of reaching a bowl. I think the Hoos continue to improve and come away with their 3rd straight win.

Prediction: Hoos 38, Panthers 31