3 Biggest Position Matchups To Watch In Saturday’s ACC Coastal Battle Between Pittsburgh And Virginia Tech

Sean Labar

Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh fans are probably getting nervous right about now. The rest of the college football world should be thrilled to watch a classic ACC high-stakes battle. It's a chance for the Hokies and Panthers to inch closer to a Costal Division title and continue to ascend toward joining Clemson as a consistent College Football Playoff contender on a yearly basis. 

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. Here are the three biggest position matchups that could make or break the battle between Virginia Tech and Pitt:

HOKIES' QB HENDON HOOKER + OFFENSIVE LINE VS. PITT PASS RUSH

Hooker -- true dual-threat quarterback who chose Virginia Tech over a bevy of national college football powerhouses -- has been fantastic since taking over the starting role back in October. In five games, the 6-foot-4 signal caller has eight passing touchdowns and another five on the ground. He boasts an impressive completion percentage (60.8 %) and hasn't thrown a single interception in the 5-game span. Hooker leans heavily on a young,  offensive line that has played better as the season progressed. The Hokies' front has benefited from creative play-calling in the run game but has done its part in carving holes for a rushing unit that has averaged more than 200 rushing yards in its last five outings.

Pass protection is a work in progress, but it's tough to give a group that has allowed 19 sacks (four to Furman) the edge against the top pass rushing defense in all of college football.  Of Pitt's nation-leading 45 sacks, 21 have come in key third down moments. There isn't a single player for the Hokies' young offense to hone in on, either. Five different Panthers have combined for sacks on third down and a bevy of Pitt defenders have taken down the opposing QB at least once. 

The term "Havoc Rate" may not resonate as a real college football metric, but it is. Havoc Rate refers to the percent of plays a defense records a tackle for loss, forces a fumble or has a defended pass (breakup or INT). As the Pittsburgh Post Gazette notes, Pitt coordinator Randy Bates is a mastermind at scheming chaos for opposing offenses and his talented unit delivers. On 677 defensive snaps, the Panthers' defense has recorded 81 TFLs, 11 forced fumbles and 68 passes defended (8 INTs, 60 break-ups). Entering the weekend, Pitt’s mark ranked third in FBS, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly.

Hooker has found a way to thrive each and every time adversity has hit this season, so logic plays to his favor because adversity will hit. Only time will tell, but soon enough Hokies' fans will know if their new shiny toy at QB can remain composed against a ferocious defensive threat. 

Advantage: Pittsburgh 

VIRGNIA TECH SECONDARY VS. PITT QB KENNY PICKETT & PANTHERS WIDEOUTS

Pitt Junior quarterback is a tough one to figure out. He looked below-average to start the year but has slowly progressed. His confidence has trended upward, and the defense has helped bail the Panthers' passer out of turnovers and mistakes. The Junior arrives in Blacksburg coming off one of his best outings of the year where he threw for a season-high 359 yards and a touchdown in a 45-21 win over North Carolina. Pickett isn't great at any one thing, but he's trending in the right direction and is more than just a game manager. While the Panthers' signal caller is a far cry from the dynamic rusher like Hooker, or even the Hokies' backup, Quincy Patterson, he can use his feet to make plays when the pocket collapses. Pickett tacked on two rushing touchdowns to his total in last week's victory, his first two scores on the ground in 2019.

Pickett will face a young, hungry, versatile Hokies' secondary laden with talent. It's a group that looked lost a season ago and struggled mightily early this year (Duke lit them up after all). Still, Foster stuck by his group and Virginia Tech fans has watched the unit blossom before their eyes. Cornerback Caleb Farley has led the charge at corner and is quietly emerging as the next great DB to come out of Blacksburg. Senior Reggie Floyd is a calming presence at safety and the entire group has morphed from a liability to a strong suit. 

Foster and the Hokies' coaching staff began referring to every game after the Duke embarrassment as "AD," but it's more than a catchy reference. Nearly every position group has improved since then, with the secondary nearing the top of the list. The Hokies had  a measly two interceptions after the first for games (which included Furman and Rhode Island), but began to gain confidence in the Miami comeback in a big way (4 INT). If Narduzzi and his staff feel comfortable enough to throw the rock around in tough conditions, expect the VT secondary to have a field day. Pickett has 8 interceptions on the year, but when he throws them, they come in pairs. He only has four outings this season where an INT was recorded, but each time, he threw two. 

Advantage: Virginia Tech

JUSTIN FUENTE VS. PAT NARDUZZI 

They aren't position players but this matchup has a heightened level of importance. The obvious motivation has been the main storyline all week. The winner continues its quest for the ACC Coastal crown, while the loser falls out of contention and will then set sites on landing in a decent Bowl game.  

For Fuente and his staff, a win means the Hokies would head to Charlottesville next Friday for the most important Commonwealth Cup tilt since he took over in Blacksburg. Oh, and its Foster's last game ever (unless he suddenly changes his mind which we can't completely rule out but it's unlikely) standing on the sidelines at Lane Stadium. The legendary Virginia Tech defensive coordinator was honored during the Hokies' last home stand and his boys delivered in a major way with an upset over then No. 19 Wake Forest. Fuente cares a ton about Foster and while it may sound cliche, he's absolutely taking his defensive coordinator's looming retirement into consideration ahead of Saturday's kickoff. 

It may sound silly, but the biggest motivating factor is one of the most simple concepts in sports. Payback. Every player and fan remembers last year's 52-22 drubbing at Pitt. It was embarrassing. It's viewed as one of the worst losses of the Fuente era. You better believe the Hokies' front man has been replaying that game for weeks and reminding his team of how quickly that one slipped away. 

Narduzzi has similar goals.

The Panthers make the trek to Lane Stadium as slight underdogs but they've won seven of their last eight contests and are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Virginia Tech. Like Fuente, Narduzzi would love to make another run at the ACC Coastal Crown, which would mean back-to-back years where Pitt claimed that honor.  

Keep a close eye on the strategy each coach unveils as the game unfolds. With chilly temperatures and consistent rain nearly all day, it will be a chess match between two smart football minds. Fuente's offense has completely morphed for the better since Hooker took over under center. The mid-season addition of veteran FBS coach Jerry Kill can't be understated, either. Kill's influence, Hooker's versatility and Fuente's offensive prowess have produced a monster that focuses on running the football creatively and using the success on the ground to pick up select chunks through the air. The Hokies will need to stick to the formula that has led to a 5-0 record with hooker at quarterback. Long possessions that use a variety of rushing attacks to keep the defense guessing, with the occasional downfield pass or screen to maximize a given look. This approach keeps the defense fresh and hungry, and boy, they seem to thrive with ample rest. 

Anyone who has followed the ACC in recent years knows Pitt has been a run-heavy team under Narduzzi. Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner was the workhorse for the Panthers before departing for the NFL and Pitt hammered the rock and played stiff defense to close out last year's victory over Virginia Tech. Narduzzi switched it up ahead of the 2019 campaign -- and while the offense still finds success on the ground (131.7 yards per game) -- its a far more balanced approach that isn't afraid to take downfield passing shots. Will the weather be so bad the Panthers are forced to become one-dimensional? If so, Virginia Tech will have a major boost. 

Advantage: Virginia Tech 

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