The Defining Five: Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Panthers defeated the Virginia Tech Hokies 47-14 this Saturday, marking the fifth-worst loss in the 128-year-old program’s history. The Panthers have put together back-to-back wins for the first time since weeks two and three and are outscoring their opponents by an average 28.5 points during this stretch. Meanwhile, the Hokies have now dropped four of their past five contests and are on pace to finish with a losing record for the first time since 1992.
While Tech attempted desperately to hold on in the early stages, Blacksburg’s finest failed to score over the final 33:36. The Panthers scored 31 points in that same time frame.
While this journalist may have missed big in his score prediction (21-13 VT) in the Sons of Saturdays’ game picks, he did have a good sense of what was to come from the Hokie offense.
“Expect both coaches to tread lightly and stick to the core of their playbooks, leaving the players who provide the most energy the opportunity to win their team the game. For me, this team will be Virginia Tech. Be on the lookout for Tre Turner.”
Pittsburgh took their air-raid offense to a new level, allowing Kenny Pickett to cut loose 52 times despite missing their top receiving threat and four other offensive starters, but Virginia Tech Offensive Coordinator and signal caller Brad Cornelsen did not waiver from his approach of calling predictable, scared plays, while Head Coach Justin Fuente seemed happy enough to sit back and watch another casual Saturday outing.
For the second week in a row, onlookers witnessed an inside zone on a 3rd and six in what was not obvious four-down territory. What was even more egregious, though, was that this was not a surprise. During the maroon and orange’s first possession, the newly healthy Khalil Herbert received two carries on the first two plays which he advanced for eight yards total. Then, on third down, the Hokies ran a slow developing fake quarterback power that ended with Hendon Hooker timidly flipping the football to Herbert near the right hash. The Panthers, who had put eight men in the box and pressed their defensive backs to contain the edges of the line of scrimmage, graciously erupted into Herbert’s lane and used the combination of Erick Hallett and Chase Pine to drag the Tech running back down short of the first down line.
On a hugely bright note, the Hokie fan base has seen highlight moments from Tre Turner in back-to-back weekends. The Junior wideout finished Saturday's outing with three receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
Like any other weekend, though, no amount of commentary can explain what happened better than the five key plays from the game. They are as follows:
9:16 left in the first quarter
This week’s iteration of “The Defining Five” starts out with a three-for-one-special on mishaps. On the first play of their second drive, Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker was clobbered on the arm by Pitt Defensive Lineman Keyshon Camp during the release of his throw, causing the ball to wobble lamely right through the heart of the defense. Tre Turner miraculously managed to swoop in on the pigskin, but did not encourage anyone watching in-house or at home. Rather than leaning on something familiarly simple, the coaching staff decided to call Turner’s number again on the next play: in the form of a double reverse. Hooker took this snap from the gun and stuck the ball in the gut of Khalil Herbert who then attempted to pitch the ball to Turner, not realizing that he had been swallowed by the turf monster. The ball squirted loose and was ultimately recovered by Pitt’s Patrick Jones II, who had already been making himself cozy in the Blacksburg backfield, anticipating the reverse to Turner. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett must have felt bad for the unfortunate circumstances the Hokies were facing early, though, as on the very next play he threw a casual pitch to VT Defensive Back Chamarri Conner, who gladly accepted the act of kindness from the Panthers’ captain, and intercepted the ball. Pickett had been looking for his number-one target on the day, D.J. Turner, on a comeback route up the right sideline, but failed to consider that Conner’s cloud flat coverage was designed to stop routes exactly like Turner’s. All-in-all, three wacky plays that indicated that the fans were in for an ugly afternoon. 3-0 Pitt.
13:22 left in the second quarter
Tech coach Justin Fuente decided that the middle of the Hokies’ most productive drive of the game, which had just produced a 38-yard reception by James Mitchell (which really should have been a touchdown if the ball had been thrown any better than it was), was an enthralling time to introduce backup QB Quincy Patterson II and backup RB Jalen Holston to the action. Holston remained in for four plays, advancing two carries for eight yards, while Patterson took all of the snaps for the rest of the drive, going 3/4 for 18 yards with one carry for one yard. Hendon Hooker, who was again coming off of his best play of the day, went to the sideline uninjured and was back on duty the next drive. This style of approach has been successful in specific scenarios, most notably for the Taysom Hill and Drew Brees in New Orleans, but is very questionable to enact during such a poor run of form. 9-0 Pitt.
8:22 left in the second quarter
After initiating a decoy movement similar to the failed third-down attempt on the first Hokie drive of the game, Hendon Hooker slung a pass down the deep right sideline to a streaking Tre Turner who had negotiated himself some real estate. “Big Play” Tre hauled in the rock and eased into the endzone for a 55-yard touchdown, his team’s first of the day and his longest of the season. Damar Hamlin had been responsible for the deep third that the Hokies’ star had infiltrated on a well-run corner route, starting from the left slot, and was late to his zone after falling victim to the fake sweep that Hooker enacted. Turner would then high-point a seven yard touchdown pass during his next offensive possession after breaking free on a skinny post, showing his ability to provide for a struggling offense. 16-14 Pitt.
1:38 left in the second quarter
Every coach has emphasized it before: score and don’t be scored upon heading into halftime. Kenny Pickett, having already extended a lifeline to Virginia Tech earlier in the game, chose to adhere to this advice. The senior quarterback led his team on a 2:07, 65-yard long drive to extend their lead back to nine points. The dagger in this series came when Pickett spun away from a steaming Eli Adams, rolled to his left and lofted a cross-body touch pass to the middle of the end zone. Often called the most dangerous pass in football, the Hokies’ secondary failed to capitalize on Pickett’s mistake and conceded a rather wimpy touchdown. 23-14 Pitt.
10:01 left in the third quarter
On a 4th
and goal from the Pittsburgh one-yard line, against the second-best rushing defense in FBS football, a noble but battered Hendon Hooker took the ball straight up the gut for 99% of the needed yard. No questions can be made about Hooker’s commitment to the team this season, as he has devoted himself to gaining all of the yardage that he can by any means necessary. Regardless, the Panthers stopped the Hokie hero just short. The low spirits of the away team must have been prevalent to the Pittsburgh offense, who came out smelling blood in the water. Pickett’s army lit up the Virginia Tech defense for a four play, 99-yard drive, polished off by a 64-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Turner. This reception brought the Pitt senior to 161 yards en route to a 15 catch, 184-yard, one touchdown performance against a university that had never allowed that many receiving yards to a single player. 33-14 Pitt.
This series is all about the moments that defined the game and as sad as it is, this game was over in the early parts of the third quarter. Yes, Pitt would go on to tack on 14 more points, but the Hokies had been defeated long before the merciful final whistle.
When asked in the post-game press conference if he would consider switching responsibilities for play calling, an irritated Justin Fuente sounded off, remarking “That’s the most ludicrous crap I’ve ever heard. Next question.”
There were positives to build on last Saturday: there are none to embrace this week, other than a boost of self-confidence for Tre Turner.
The Hokies, who are on a three-game skid, will welcome Dabo Swinney’s Clemson squad to Lane Stadium in two weeks. Outside of a Christmas miracle, the Commonwealth Cup against UVA on December 12th will determine if the Hokies will record their program’s first five-game-loss streak in 28 years, or if they will redeem some honor and end the season with a moral victory.
Next on the schedule: the Clemson Tigers.