An Optimistic Look at the Road Ahead for Pitt

I’ve seen and heard a lot of the same sentiment lately: “If Pitt can win one out of the next three, that will be great.”

While I can’t completely disagree (one win out of the next three would probably set Pitt on course to win eight games this season — not bad), I think Pitt has a chance to maybe do something a little more special.

By now, if you’ve read or listened to anything I put out there, you know I’m an eternal Pitt optimist. I admit that, so I naturally have a bit of a bias here.

But when I look ahead at the next three games, there’s nothing in front of Pitt that screams “definite loss.”

Yes, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Clemson are good football teams. Clemson is very good. If Pitt lost to all of them, I wouldn’t be shocked. But all of them have their flaws.

Let’s take a look…

Virginia Tech (5-2)

Pitt plays Virginia Tech on Thursday night. When these teams play at Heinz Field, Pitt seems to do pretty well. That’s just situational, though. There are some things that can work in Pitt’s favor.

The Hokies offense appears to be just average, which is probably to be expected with new coach Justin Fuente in his first year at the helm. Fuente became well-known for his success at Memphis, due in large part to a dynamic offense he was able to build. VT has some weapons, and they have certainly put up a lot of point in a few games this season (49 against Boston College, 54 against ECU, 37 against Miami), but by the eye test they leave a little to be desired.

Junior quarterback Jerod Evans has come in and done a fine job for the Hokies. He has protected the football and allowed the rushing attack to lead the way. Evans has accounted for 19 touchdowns through the air and added over 400 rushing yards as well. However, there are times where he struggles with inaccuracies where he and his receivers are not on the same page.

All told, Virginia Tech ranks 57th in the country in passing yards per game and 43rd in rushing yards per game. Fine numbers, but no more lethal than the offenses Pitt faced in Oklahoma State and North Carolina. Some of VT’s numbers benefited from playing in bizarre weather (UNC) and against a battered, bruised, and broken defense (Miami).

With some recent baby steps in the right direction defensively for Pitt, there’s cause for some optimism here. Take advantage of a miscue or two in that passing game, and we’re in business.

As for Pitt’s offense against Virginia Tech’s defense, they have a tough task ahead. Such is life going against Bud Foster. VT is stout against the run. That said, the Hokies haven’t faced an offense like what Pitt is throwing at opponents this season. I expect for the rest of the year (and the rest of this blog post) that Pitt can score 4-5 touchdowns on just about anybody.

Matt Canada’s offense will eventually hit a wall, but I don’t believe we’re anywhere close to that happening. In fact, I think they have more to implement into the game plan as time goes on. That’s scary for opponents.

Miami (4-3)

The Miami game is a week and-a-half after the Virginia Tech game, which pans out nicely that the Panthers get some extra time for the second week in a row to game plan for their next opponent. Hopefully they use it to their advantage, because there are some serious flaws in the Hurricanes that can be taken advantage of.

Brad Kaaya, Miami’s starting quarterback, is an NFL talent. He appears to have a lot of potential. However, he’s struggling to reach that potential this season, because the Miami offensive line just can’t keep him upright. He was sacked eight times at Virginia Tech, and has hit the ground often in previous matchups as well.

Miami is an average 49th in the country in yards per game, and that offensive line that can’t keep Kaaya upright can’t seem to pave the way for the running game either, which is 74th in the country in yards per game. Now, some of that rushing yardage is affected by sacks, but there’s certainly more to it than that.

The Canes have lost three in a row to date (Florida State, North Carolina, and the Hokies). None of those teams are slouches, that’s for sure. But FSU appears to be struggling through a “down year” under Jimbo Fisher, North Carolina’s defense has been a sieve most of the season, and VT is in its first year under a new head coach, as mentioned above.

This doesn’t look much different to me than any other Miami team now that we’re halfway through the season. Once ranked No. 10 in the country, the Hurricanes have proven they’re still undisciplined and erratic on a game-to-game basis. During this losing streak, their defense has been decimated with injuries, too. Not good signs for the Canes.

Pitt could win this game. I don’t expect much of a home field advantage, either, considering there will probably be a total of 12 fans in Pro Player Stadium or whatever the hell it’s called now.

Rush the QB. Unleash Ejuan Price. Run the ball down their throats.

Clemson (7-0)

This is the one that’s probably hardest to sell to you guys, and I get that. I don’t by any means expect Pitt to win at Clemson. Heck, I’m traveling all the way down there for this game and fully expect to leave with a loss.

But… Clemson hasn’t been perfect.

By the time this game happens, it’s hard to know what Clemson will look like. I could easily see the Tigers at 9-0 with wins in upcoming games against Florida State and Syracuse. I could also very easily see a team like FSU upsetting a Clemson team that, while 7-0, has been a little underwhelming in its performance.

Fair or unfair… Clemson has set quite a high bar for itself over the last year or so. Going undefeated and making the National Championship game will do that. And when you come back the next season and just sneak by in games against Auburn, Troy, and NC State, it’s gonna raise an eyebrow or two.

A game like the NC State game is a prime example. Deshaun Watson throws a pick and three different players lose fumbles. The Wolfpack had numerous opportunities to put the game away, but threw two picks of their own and missed a makeable field goal at the end of the game. It’s a game Clemson should have lost.

The Tigers also struggle to run the ball — just 72nd in the country in rushing yards per game. If Watson misses on some throws and they can’t run the ball, Pitt’s clock-control offense could take over the game. A problem for a team like Clemson is… if you don’t run the ball efficiently, it’s tougher to put close games away. And with how efficient Pitt’s offense is, this game could at least be close.

It seems like sometimes the focus is there for Clemson and sometimes it isn’t. Watson has been mostly good, but for whatever reason this year when he misses on passes he REALLY misses. Those are opportunities for Pitt.

This game will come in the middle of a stretch where Clemson has games against Syracuse, Pitt, and Wake Forest after the Florida State game and before their rivalry game against South Carolina. I have no clue which Clemson team will show up each week.

If Clemson is “on”, I don’t think Pitt has a chance. If Clemson is a bit “off”, which it has been semi-regularly so far this season, I think Pitt has a chance to keep it close. If the defense can continue to make baby steps in the right direction in the secondary and shut down the run, I think the offense can control the clock.

Control the clock, and anything can happen.

Again, I can’t guarantee that Pitt will win any of these games. But I do think the Panthers have a shot in each one. That’s enough to get me excited about the upcoming stretch.

It felt like most of the fan base was down in the dumps about losing back-to-back games. Understandably so. It’s never fun to lose.

But those losses — to Oklahoma State and North Carolina — were to pretty good football teams and by a combined total of eight points. Pitt has its flaws just like every other team in the Coastal, but it has competed with the best teams on its schedule.

There are talented opponents to come, which tells me we’re in for some close games. Make an extra play here or there and you’ve got yourself a big win.

Maybe get a little help from someone else beating UNC, and things get even more interesting!



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