ACC Coastal contention on line for VT, Pitt
Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh will play for position in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division race when they clash Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
It is pretty much an elimination game for the Panthers and close to that for the Hokies.
A win would keep the 25th-ranked Hokies (5-2, 3-1 ACC) on the road to the conference title game Dec. 3 in Orlando. They hold the tiebreaker over present division leader North Carolina (6-2, 4-1), which is off this weekend.
The unranked Panthers (5-2, 2-1) need a win to keep the pressure on the division-leading Tar Heels, who hold the tiebreaker over Pitt.
A loss wouldn't eliminate the Hokies from the title race but would leave them needing the Tar Heels to lose at least one of their remaining conference games against Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina State to regain the advantage in the tiebreaker.
A Panthers defeat would leave Pitt them on the outside and hoping for some sort of multiple-team deadlock at the end of the regular season that doesn't include both North Carolina and Virginia Tech, which both would hold tiebreakers over the Panthers.
Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi acknowledges the Thursday contest is pretty much a "must-win" game.
"Yeah, I would say so," Narduzzi said. "I would say so. Based on how things look and I think every ACC game is a must win as we go on, as far as what you want to do. You're a 5-2 football team, and each one of these games is important."
The Hokies are 1-2 away from Blacksburg's Lane Stadium, and the trip to Pittsburgh represents their biggest road test of the season. Virginia Tech is headed for a place where it hasn't experienced much success.
The Hokies' last road win over the Panthers was in 1999 in the old Pitt Stadium, when both teams labored in the Big East Conference. The Panthers have won all four meetings played at Heinz Field and have won six of the past seven meetings overall.
"It's not something we've addressed," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuentes said of the Hokies' recent struggles vs. the Panthers. "I know that Pitt has been very good and we haven't, for whatever reason, whether it was there or here, haven't had much success in recent history. But it's not something we dwell on."
Hokies running back Travon McMillian said, "This is a totally different team than we've had in the past."
Narduzzi sees the Panthers' recent success as a non-factor.
"If we need the past to help with our confidence, then we probably got issues, 'Hey, we got a chance to win because this is what happened in the past,'" he said. "It doesn't matter.
"This is a new football team. They're coming in here, they have never come in here in October 2016 to play us. So they get a chance to come here, and it's a new show, in my opinion."
What concerns Narduzzi more is a Hokies' offense led by versatile quarterback Jerod Evans (229 yards a game passing and 60 rushing) and McMillian, who is coming off a 131-yard rushing performance in Tech's 37-16 thumping of Miami last week.
The Tech defense that held Miami to just 42 yards rushing and recorded eight sacks. It is, Narduzzi acknowledges, the best defense his team has faced so far.
"Based on the stats, without a question," he said.
The Hokies have yielded only nine touchdown passes this year while also recording nine interceptions.
Pitt itself is no slouch defensively, holding opponents to less than 97 yards a game rushing and sacking opposing quarterbacks 25 times, which is tied for fourth-best total in the country. Defensive end Ejuan Price has a national-best nine sacks.
The Panthers also are one of the top rushing teams. Behind junior James Conner (76 yards a game) and a stable of backups, the Panthers rank 20th in the country with their average of 239 rushing yards per game.
"You can tell the makeup of their team starts with running the football and stopping the run," Fuentes said. "And they've been successful at that, and that is why they're winning ballgames."
Pitt is coming of a bye week, but Narduzzi isn't convinced that will be an advantage.
"You can go either way," he said. "You would like to keep the momentum. You would like to keep playing and stay in that same rhythm. However, it did give us a chance to get fresh and get healthy. I don't think it will play a big part either way. That won't be an excuse or a benefit."