Following a bye week, the Panthers will be back in business Thursday night when Pitt hosts the No. 25 Virginia Tech Hokies, who are coming into the game fresh off their 37-16 manhandling of the Miami Hurricanes. When Pitt welcomes the Hokies to Heinz Field, it’ll be the start of a make-or-break stretch for the Panthers.
For a second straight season, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi’s team has gotten off to a quick start. The Panthers opened last year at 6-1; this time around Pitt sits at 5-2 and is in the midst of a precariously tight ACC Coastal race.
But last year’s team slid to an 8-4 finish, which this year’s team hopes to avoid.
Virginia Tech is undoubtedly the surprise team of the ACC. It’s head coach Justin Fuente’s first season after taking over for the legendary Frank Beamer, and Fuente has led a resurgent bunch. The Hokies match Pitt’s 5-2 record but sit above the Panthers in the standings, edging them with a 3-1 ACC record to Pitt’s 2-1.
The Hokies’ stud quarterback Jeron Evans is the engine that drives the team’s offense. In his first year as starter, Evans has been a revelation. He’s tossed 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His name litters the ACC leaderboard, too. Evans tops the ACC in passer rating and adjusted passing yards per attempt. He also’s also second in touchdown passes and, with three rushing touchdowns, is second in the conference for total touchdowns (22).
At 6 foot 4 and 235 pounds Evans is large in stature. He possesses a big arm with surprisingly good touch and anticipation. He’s the ultimate dual-threat quarterback, also utilizing his size on the ground. And Evans is a powerful runner with nimble feet, averaging a hair under five yards per carry — a stat made even more impressive by the fact that negative yards absorbed on sacks are also factored into rushing totals in the college game.
Still, the Panthers are no offensive slouches themselves. Pitt’s current six-game streak of notching 36 points or more is the longest active streak in the entire FBS and is a school record, to boot.
So Pitt’s offense will look to get the jump on Virginia Tech early. Expect a healthy dose of Conner, the Q’s, and Tez (Pitt running backs James Conner, Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss and joy stick speedster/kick return ace Quadree Henderson, that is.)
A win Thursday would vault the Panthers over Virginia Tech in the ACC standings and hand Pitt the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker. After the game against the Hokies is a road trip to a surprising down-trodden Miami (which bears an ugly 1-3 ACC record) and then a walk through the Valley of Death. Literally, Pitt visits the national-title-hopeful No. 3 Clemson Tigers in their home, Death Valley.
To make a serious run at the ACC Coastal crown, Pitt’s next two games — especially Thursday’s game against Virginia Tech — are critical. Pitt hopes to avoid another late season letdown that saw it drop from the title race last year.
Plus, taking a win at home against a ranked opponent would likely vault Pitt into the national rankings (especially with its win against now-No. 24 Penn State.) From there, the Panthers will just have to take their chances in Miami and cross their fingers against Clemson.
The Panthers should be heavy underdogs at Clemson, though the Tigers haven’t been as dominant as they were last season, which culminated in a national title. But Pitt’s not exactly a stranger to derailing a title contender’s hopes. Just ask Pat White’s West Virginia team about their defeat at the hands of the Panthers. A game known to Pitt faithful by simply stating the final score — 13-9 — it also denied West Virginia a certain title game berth.
Winning two out of the next three would push the Panthers to 7-3 and 4-1 in the ACC before home tilts against Duke and Syracuse to end the season. At that rate, nine wins and an ACC Coastal Division championship would be clearly within Pitt’s grasp.
The time to make a run is now.
A strong finish would be instrumental in cementing Pitt’s status as a program on the rise and put to bed some demons of Panther disappointments past.
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