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October 10, 2013

Tough challenge waiting for Pitt's offense

At various points in the first four games of the 2013 season, Pitt's offense has looked unstoppable. At other points - often in the same games - the offense has looked unmovable.

If the Panthers want to have success against No. 24 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday, they'll need to find a way to be closer to the former than the latter. But that will be no easy task, since the Hokies boast the top-ranked defense in the ACC and one of the best in the nation.

"They're a really good defense personnel-wise and what they do scheme-wise," Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said this week. "They put their guys in position to make plays."

"Making plays" is what Virginia Tech has done best this season. The Hokies have intercepted 13 passes in six games this season, more than any other team in the country and four more than any other team in the ACC.

Each of Virginia Tech's five starting defensive backs in the Hokies' 4-2-5 system has at least two interceptions this season. Freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson leads the way with four, while brothers Kendall Fuller and Kyle Fuller have two, as do safety Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner. Inside linebacker Tariq Edwards also has one.

"They're making plays," Rudolph said. "When they get opportunities, they take advantage. They create confusion and uncertainty, and off of that, people are giving them some chances but they're taking advantage. Guys are making plays on balls and they're doing a nice job."

Conversely, Pitt's offense hasn't been doing too nice of a job. Aside from a smooth cruise over New Mexico and three quarters of strong play at Duke, the Panthers' offense has struggled to find consistent rhythm this season. Quarterback Tom Savage has thrown six interceptions in four games, the unit is converting just 35% of its third downs, and things get particularly tough when Pitt's offense moves inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Pitt's offense has driven into the red zone 16 times this season. On those 16 trips, the Panthers have 10 touchdowns and two field goals, an average of 4.1 points per red-zone possession, which ranks 85th nationally. And Pitt's 75% scoring rate in the red zone - 12 scores on 16 trips - ranks 98th in the nation.

In the ACC, only North Carolina State, Virginia, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech have worse points-per-possession numbers in the red zone, and only the Deacons, Cavaliers and Hokies trail Pitt in red-zone scoring percentage.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's defense has allowed opposing offenses to reach the end zone just nine times in six games this season.

And on top of all of that, the Hokies have recorded 19 sacks in six games and rank among the top 15 in the nation in sacks per game.

So with Virginia Tech's rather imposing defense waiting in the wings at Lane Stadium, Pitt's up-and-down offense needs to find a way to settle into the "up" side of the equation. To do that, the Panthers will need to rely on the old familiar formula: run the ball effectively, get in manageable down-and-distance situations and use the run game to set up play-action passes.

If Pitt can find some consistency in that approach, the offense can be dangerous.

"It's going to be a lot of one-on-one's, a lot of man-to-man," redshirt senior receiver Devin Street said of the defense he expects to see. "We thrive in that and that's what we're looking forward to. We're looking forward to the one-on-one matchups and we're going to have to have win one-on-one."

"We just have to keep doing what we're doing," sophomore tight end JP Holtz said this week. "I feel like we can beat anyone if we play together like we have been. The defense came up big last game (against Virginia); the offense came up big against Duke. We just have to keep doing what we do.

"I just feel like we're playing as a team now. I feel like we're coming together and playing together, and it's a lot different than when we started off."




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