December 15, 2017

Virginia Tech – Pittsburgh Preview: History discouraging for Hokies

Usually the Virginia Tech Hokies wait until after their game against the University of Pittsburgh Panthers to begin a long streak of misfortunes, poor play and upset losses. However, this season they’ve gotten a head start, losing to a much weaker East Carolina for the second season in a row behind a sloppy defense before losing All-American cornerback Kendall Fuller for the season to a torn meniscus. Compared to that the horrors that will be unleashed by the Curse of Pitt might not seem as bad.

Rest assured that the Curse of Pitt is real and it is spectacular. The Hokies played their final season in the Big East in 2003, when they went from preseason No. 9, to 8-5. The next season in the ACC they began their vaunted 10-win season streak. That streak came to an end in 2012, when, you guessed it, the Panthers moved to the ACC and back onto the Hokies yearly schedule. They haven’t recovered yet.

The Hokies were a combined 33-6 entering their last six games against the Panthers, but from that point on they went a combined 16-25 including the game against Pittsburgh and bowl games.

And the actual games themselves haven’t gone that well either. Overall the Hokies are just 8-6 against the Panthers, despite Pitt not being one of the better teams in football. In fact, the Panthers were only ranked once in the 14 meetings between the two teams, at No. 25, where they of course beat the No. 5 Hokies in 2003. Tech has entered the contest ranked 10 of those times, yet is only 5-5 in those meetings. So yes, you better respect the Curse of Pitt.

Not that the Hokies are really entering this week’s game on a high note. After back-to-back thrashings of Furman and Purdue they ran into a real opponent in East Carolina. A clever wrinkle from Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill using a running quarterback and a missing Kendall Fuller led to the Hokies’ supposedly vaunted defense to be run off the field.

Not that Bud Foster’s unit has been that good this year. They were projected in the preseason by S&P+ to be the No. 2 defense in the nation, but so far have checked in at No. 60. Their big four defensive line of Ken Ekanem, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Dadi Nicolas have combined for one sack. While little depth across the field has forced the few stars they have to work overtime to keep things running and making every little injury devastating.

There is some good news on that front though as middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka is expected to return Saturday. Even better news considering fill-in starter Sean Huelskamp was ejected from the game against the Pirates for a ridiculous targeting penalty and is subsequently suspended from the first half of the game against the Panthers.

However, the Hokies still need that unit to play up to its expectations if they want to see any success this season.

Offensively the Hokies saw a vintage Logan Thomas performance from 2014 preseason ACC Player of the Year vote receiver quarterback Brenden Motley who accounted for 85 percent of their total yards and scoring two touchdowns. The Tech offense continues to be the better unit to the surprise of everyone, checking in at No. 39 by S&P+. Perhaps its their ability to take care of the ball, as Brewer and Motley have combined for only two interceptions so far.

The Panthers will present a tough test, similar to the Pirates, as they’re the No. 50 team in the advanced F/+ Combined Rankings. That’s not to say that the Panthers are doing all that well either. They’re 2-1 on the season, with the two wins coming against two FCS opponents and then dropping a close game to Iowa. And like the Hokies they’ve been banged up. Losing all world running back James Conner to a season ending knee injury in the first week of the season.

But they do still have a major weapon in wide receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the best in the nation. He’ll severely test the new Fuller-less secondary that struggled mightily against East Carolina’s wideouts. The question is whether the Panthers can get the ball to him as they move forward with new starting quarterback Nathan Peterman. With a full week without Fuller the Hokies will need to identify a better scheme to shutdown Boyd than they did for East Carolina, otherwise it won’t matter what Motley can do.

And always beware the Curse of Pitt.

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