by Debashis Bagchi
THE PANTHERS RUN
The most complete
mismatch on the field. Hokie defense has not allowed a team to gain
more than 83 yds rushing all season. Pitt must establish somewhat
of a running game to keep defensive pressure off inconsistent QB
Rod Rutherford. Junior RB Brandon Miree (235lbs) is Pitt's leading
rusher with 390 yds, but only 3.7 yds per carry. Miree regained
the starting nod last week against Boston College from last year's
freshman surprise, Raymond Kirkley. Combined, Pitt's RBs are averaging
well under 4 ypc. In fact, FB Lousaka Polite leads the team with
4.4 ypc. Look for Pittsburgh to only utilize the run to keep the
Va Tech defense honest. Pittsburgh needs to keep Tech off-balance
with a steady diet of Polite and Miree up the gut, complimented
with a few draws and bootlegs from Rutherford. Rutherford is a capable
runner (214 yds, 3 TDs) and the first such mobile-QB test for the
Hokie defense this year. Tech's aggressive defensive front, anchored
by DEs Nathaniel Adibi and Cols Colas will be too quick for the
Panther OL. Keep on eye on Rover safety Michael Crawford. He likes
to sneak up to help stop the run (VA Tech has inexperienced LBs
- 2 sophomore and 1 freshman starter). Pittsburgh's goal is to gain
100 yds rushing and, more importantly, convert 3rd and short situations.
Don't expect it, though, and look for Pitt to abandon the run quickly.
Coach Walt Harris is known to be pass-happy.
HUGE EDGE: Virginia Tech
THE HOKIES RUN
will be a giant test both ways. Despite the vaunted VT RB
duo of Suggs and sophomore stud Kevin Jones, the Hokies running
game has been slowed several times. Temple, W. Michigan and
Texas A&M all had repeated success crowding the line and
forcing Tech to throw. Suggs averaged only 49 ypg in these
three games, opposed to 136 ypg otherwise. Pittsburgh's athletic
defense shut down Notre Dame (only 40 yds rushing). The Panthers
present the same size and speed challenges as did Texas A&M.
Look out for Pitt's brilliant LB trio of All-American candidate
Gerald Hayes and experienced outside guys Lewis Moore and
Brian Beinecke. These three average 240 pounds and really
get after the run. Also, Pittsburgh will risk bringing up
SS Tyrone Gilliard to run-stop. Many people have begun comparing
Walt Harris' young defense to the UNC defenses of the mid-90's.
Pittsburgh needs to contain Virginia Tech to around 150 yards
rushing. With this, the Panthers will have a great chance
to spring an upset. The game will be won in this match up.
EDGE: EVEN (Surprise, Surprise)
THE PANTHERS PASS
would be 8-0 now if only the offense had made a few more plays
against Notre Dame and Texas A&M. This is the game for
improving QB Rutherford so as to silence his critics. The
Hokies have depth and talent at secondary, but they are aggressive
and can be exploited. They have allowed over 200 yards passing
in all but two games (despite having faced only two strong
passing teams, Marshall and Boston College). Rutherford has
thrown for over 200 yds the past six games, including 9 TDs
and only 4 INTs. The Panthers have a big, talented WR duo
in freshman Larry Fitzgerald (6'3", 38rec/543yds, 4TDs)
and senior Lamar Slade (6'4", 35rec/515yds, 4TDs). Fitzgerald
and Slade need to utilize their advantage over Hokie CBs Garnell
Wilds (5'11") and Vincent Fuller (6'1"). The Hokies
will rotate DeAngelo Hall (5'11"), the team's best athlete,
and Ronyell Whitaker (5'9"). Look for sophomore speedster
WR Roosevelt Bynes to get open if the Hokies try to double
Slade and/or Fitzgerald. Bynes averages 24.1 ypc. The Panther's
primary concern will be pressure from the Tech pass rush.
Beamer loves to blitz the back 7 (all LBs and DLmen) and is
brilliant at disguising the defensive attack. A key statistic
- Pitt has allowed 28 sacks this year while the Hokies have
31. Rutherford is slow to read the pressure and will make
mistakes and take sacks. For Pittsburgh to succeed, they must
throw the ball away under pressure and remain patient, staying
away from 3rd and long. Teammates will be open. Opponents
are completing 62% of their passes against Tech. Pittsburgh
must throw to their big receivers early to make Tech keep
their safeties in coverage. Then MAYBE the Panthers can establish
some kind of running game by throwing short passes to TEs
and RBs, something they don't usually do.
THE HOKIES PASS
Bryan Randall has done an admirable job since taking over for injured
senior Grant Noel. Randall is efficient (66% completion) and mobile
(216 yds rushing). VT does not ask for much from Randall, except
occasional play-actions and mistake-free ball. Randall will not
need to have a big day for Hokie success. WR Earnest Wilford (19rec/357yds)
will find it hard going against the Panther DBs. Randall needs to
hit his TE and RB short in mismatches against bigger, slower Pitt
LBs. Amazingly, Suggs and Jones have combined for only 3 receptions
all season. Randall has completed 12 to FBs Easlick and Cedric Humes.
Look for Tech to be forced to throw in this wrinkle. The Panthers
have two excellent DBs (including the team's best athlete, special
team standout and leader in passes defended, senior Torrie Cox).
Like the Panther running game, the Hokies need their passing game
to generate just enough to keep the defense honest.
HUGE EDGE: Pittsburgh
This is not
a typical year for Virginia Tech special teams unit. Kickoff teams
have been erratic - kickers are only 8-15 in FGs. On the positive,
Tech's DeAngelo Hall is averaging 15.1 yds on punt return and Vinnie
Burns has punted for a 41.7 yds average. In stark contrast, the
Pitt special teams have been fantastic so far. Don't be surprised
if they outplay Tech in this category. Torrie Cox is 10th in the
nation at nearly 27 yds per punt return. Panther are 14-20 in FGs,
while punter Andy Lee is one of the nation's best at 43 yds per
punt. In a game that should be decided by field position, the punters
will be key.
This will be
a tremendous game. On paper, Pittsburgh might actually have the
better team. The Panthers played Virginia Tech tight (37-34 loss)
two years ago and destroyed the Hokies, 38-7 last year. In both
games, the Hokies were unable to stop Walt Harris' passing attack.
However, the home field at night will be a huge Hokie advantage.
Also, the mistake-prone play of Pitt QB Rutherford should have Panther
fans worried. This will be a low-scoring game, a real war in the
trenches. Panther LB Gerald Hayes can make a national name for himself.
For Virginia Tech, it's their last test before Miami. For Pittsburgh,
it is a third chance at respect and a possible Top 25 ranking. Two
should be Pittsburgh's magic number. If Pittsburgh has less than
two turnovers, it is their game to win. Otherwise, it will take
'too' much to overcome a disciplined Hokie bunch.
time will be the charm for a very underrated Pittsburgh team)