Last year, Pittsburgh pulled the bottom-left Jenga block on the Hokies’ season, sending the entire structure crumbling to the ground.
The Panthers put up over 500 yards of offense in their 35-17 rout of the then-No. 13 Hokies.
“We have to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again,” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “We’ve got to be a lot better. There’s something to learn from that game, but we’re not going to sit there and weep about it.”
Tech’s defense is going from playing a spread attack with a mobile quarterback last week in North Carolina, to a very old-school, ground attack in Pittsburgh.
The Panthers love to pound the rock with true freshman James Conner, who’s averaging over 5.5 yards per carry.
“They’re still a pro-style offense,” Tyler said. “They’ve got their coaches with that Wisconsin-style offense where they just get the biggest offensive linemen there are and try to run it down your throat.”
So when a team is fully committed to running the ball, the solution seems pretty easy, right? Logic says to just stick nine guys in the box and make the backs run into linebackers’ arms.
Against Pitt, it’s not so simple. On the outside, Pitt has Tyler Boyd and Devin Street, two receivers averaging over 100 yards per game.
Defensive line coach Charley Wiles said that Pitt’s simple approach causes complex issues.
“There’s not going to be any gun-runs or read people. They’re going to be blocking people — that’s what they do. They get a hat for a hat,” Wiles said. “You have to load up on them against the run, therefore you get a lot of one-on-one matchups with their two guys (Boyd and Street).”
Bud Foster echoed Wiles’ opinion, and added that just like every week, the defense’s plan starts up front.
“Pitt’s got a great tradition over the years of having great offensive linemen and I think they’ve got a group like that right now,” Foster said. “If they have a weakness up front, it might be their pass-protection, a little bit. We have to find that out … we have to get them behind the sticks where we can pin our ears back and do some things.”
Bud Foster and company look keen on stopping what Pitt does best with what they do best: defensive line pressure.
But unlike most teams, the Panthers have a very formidable “Plan B,” if they get shut down.
Boyd is a true freshman, and may very well be seeing lots of fellow true freshman Brandon Facyson. Boyd and Facyson have each drawn comparisons to previous school greats like Larry Fitzgerald and Jayron Hosley. Facyson and the rest of the Hokies’ secondary have been lauded all season, and rightfully so, but Foster is still concerned.
“They’re dynamic guys. I’m not sure they’re not the two best we’ve played, going on what I’ve seen,” Foster said. ‘They make the tough catches look easy.”
Meanwhile, rover Kyshoen Jarrett welcomes the challenge with excitement.
“Well, every week is a good opportunity for our defense, especially the secondary, to show ourselves and act disciplined in the way we play ball,” Jarrett said. “They stretch the field vertically with their speed and catch some difficult passes as I’ve seen. It should be fun.”
Despite having to deal with two elite receivers, the Hokies’ secondary might be licking their chops. The Panthers have been abysmal at protecting the football this season, as they’re averaging over two turnovers per game.
That bodes well for the Hokies, who have forced three turnovers in three straight games.
Against an offense like Pitt’s, no level of the defense can afford to hiccup at any time.
“BCS football, with the way it is, this is a playoff game. They’re talking about a four-team playoff but in conference play, every game is a playoff game, and this is as big as they get,” Foster said.