5 things that stood out in Pitt’s historic win over Virginia Tech
At the end of the Dave Wannstedt era in 2010, Pitt officials were looking for a coach to help fill seats at Heinz Field. They turned to Todd Graham, with his folksy Texas twang and racehorse offense.
After seeing there’s more to steak than sizzle, they hired Paul Chryst, who remains one of the nation’s top play-callers at Wisconsin. (Don’t tweet me, please, his quarterback has a concussion.)
After Chryst left with a 19-20 record in three seasons, it was well past time to shore up Pitt’s defense.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, Pat Narduzzi, the defensive coordinator at Michigan State who was so valued there booster money supplemented his salary.
Pitt’s defense is improving under Narduzzi, and it was the main reason the Panthers almost ruined Notre Dame’s perfect record and went to Virginia and won. Plus, the pass rush has collected 16 sacks in the past five games.
But who saw foresaw this offensive blitz in December 2014? Narduzzi has presided over three of Pitt’s five most productive games in school history: 654 yards on Saturday (Virginia Tech); 644 last year (Syracuse); and 634 two weeks ago (Duke).
Is the ACC that bad? It hasn’t been a great season for the conference, but Syracuse, which lost to Pitt in overtime, is the No. 12-ranked team in this week’s Associated Press poll. Pitt received 28 voting points, making it No. 32.
Pitt’s success is largely a product of a running game that climbed from No. 20 to No. 10 in the nation by puncturing Virginia Tech’s defense for 492 yards.
“I think they knew it was coming, too,” Narduzzi said.
Pitt is averaging 256.9 yards on the ground, which over a full season would be third-best at Pitt since 1970. Only two Tony Dorsett teams (275.1 in ’75 and 290.5 in ’76) were better. It’s also 73 percent more than last year’s average.
Here are four more thoughts from a game that put Pitt on the cusp of an ACC Coastal championship:
2. Festive atmosphere
No one made a fuss about attendance or the need for an on-campus stadium during a festive day at Heinz Field.
The crowd was in a good mood, no doubt boosted by a desire to give the 19 seniors a proper sendoff in the last home game of the season.
It was cold and windy (22-degree wind chill), but the attendance (44,398) was the second-best of the season.
Could Pitt have approached or surpassed 50,000 next Saturday if the Wake Forest game was at Heinz Field? Getting that crowd for a game that doesn’t involve Penn State, West Virginia or Notre Dame would prove if you win, they will come.
3. Letting up on the QB
The outcome was already decided midway through the fourth quarter when Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis apparently was sacked by Pitt’s pass rush. But Willis rolled over the defenders, kept his body off the ground, got up and ran for 39 yards — the Hokies’ longest gain of the day.
Narduzzi wasn’t happy, especially in light of defensive end Patrick Jones’ ejection last week in Virginia for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
“I think the (stadium) announcer called out a sack,” he said, “and all of a sudden (Willis) runs for another 40, 50 yards, whatever it was.
“It’s like I told the officials out there. I said, ‘Our guys are afraid to hit the quarterback, and then his forward progress is stopped and then you guys don’t blow a whistle.’ So, I don’t really understand that. You’re doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.”
4. Senior leadership
No doubt, Pitt’s success over the past month is largely tied to its strong senior class that has displayed the work ethic and attitude that often leads to victories.
When someone suggested running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, who combined to rush for 421 yards and four touchdowns, have had long careers, Narduzzi said, “Not long enough.”
“Those guys are two great backs who are going to play in the NFL.”
Ollison’s 97-yard run is the longest in Pitt history, breaking Hall’s record of 92, set last year.
“That’s my brother. I love him to death,” Ollison said. “There’s nobody else he wanted to have the record other than me.”
5. Waking up worried
Next up for Pitt (6-4, 5-1) is its first-ever game against Wake Forest, with the prize of a division championship if the Panthers win. Pitt did gain bowl eligibility Saturday, but that seems trivial in light of what else is at stake.
This doesn’t appear to be the easy victory Pitt fans were anticipating.
It’s Wake Forest’s last home game, and after Saturday, Pitt knows what that means. Plus, the Demon Deacons are coming off a thrilling, come-from-behind victory against N.C. State. Quarterback Jamie Newman, making his first start, threw a 32-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds left to win it.
The record (5-5, 2-4) isn’t impressive, but Wake Forest’s offense is fourth in the ACC (451.6 yards per game). The schedule has been brutal, with losses to four ranked teams – Boston College, Notre Dame, Clemson and Syracuse.
“I’ll feel good until about 11 o’clock,” Narduzzi said after the game, “and then (Sunday) morning, I’ll have a stomach ache worrying about the next one.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.