FTRS: Pittsburgh endured a tough stretch in the middle of the season with three straight losses including a loss to Akron at home. What was the reaction in Pittsburgh after that stretch? Did many people think the season was a lost cause?
CH: Pretty disastrous, as you might expect. The loss to Iowa was bad enough since Pitt had a halftime lead in that game and looked like the better team before completely falling apart in the second half. That, however, could be somewhat explained away by the fact that it was against a P5 opponent.
There really were no words for the Akron loss. And the frustrating thing was that Pitt was beaten pretty soundly in that game at home. After a quick 7-0 lead, the Panthers never regained it and looked flat out miserable all day.
Interestingly enough, we posed that same question to our readers after the Akron game in a poll. I was somewhat surprised to see only 34% writing the team off for the year. 45% weren't completely sure and 20% were not ready to give up on the team yet. I was in the 'maybe' category just because the team is so young, but I expected more people to be throwing in the towel at that point just because that was such a bad loss.
FTRS: After that stretch, Pitt got a huge win against Virginia Tech at home last week. Has the perception of the team changed because of that victory?
CH: Definitely. There was actually some room for optimism after the Virginia game, even though it was a loss. After falling behind 24-3 at halftime, Pitt scored 16 unanswered points and looked much better in the second half. That kind of gave a little hope for the season and beating Virginia Tech just continued that. We've seen the team play really good football over the past six quarters, and while they've still only won one game in their past four, there's a more optimistic feel around the program right now.
And because of the mediocre Coastal, there's actually even a lot of talk about coming out with the Division title. SB Nation recently wrote something up, calling Duke and Pitt the top contenders in the Division based on remaining schedules.
FTRS: At 2-1 in the conference, Pitt has as good of a chance in the Coastal division with home games against Georgia Tech and and Duke remaining. Do you think the Panthers have a real chance at being the last team standing in the Coastal?
CH: I'll say this - there's not one game left on the schedule that looks completely unwinnable. And because of that, there's a chance. Pitt gets both of those games at home and while they have to travel to Miami and North Carolina, neither of those teams haven't been so good that you'd rule out a Pitt win.
More than anything, the schedule kind of plays out in Pitt's favor. Duke may have a more favorable schedule, but Pitt gets to face them at home. Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Miami all have to face either Florida State or Clemson. Pitt already beat Virginia Tech and is a game up on them. North Carolina's defense is a mess.
I'm not saying the Panthers will win it - not by a long shot. This is still a team that hasn't won anything, really, since the Big East title about a decade ago (under tiebreakers, no less). But with only one conference loss and a favorable schedule, it's really hard to rule them out at this point.
FTRS: Last year was the first time Pitt and Tech have faced each other since 1976. Is there any worry about the defense not having much experience against the option offense, or has there been enough practice for the Pitt D to stand its ground?
CH: Pitt has seen it a little with Georgia Tech and also in playing Navy last season. Things were set up pretty good for the Panthers as they faced both teams in successive weeks (even though they lost both games).
Everyone knows it's the key to the game. The bottom line is that if Pitt doesn't contain it, they're going to lose. Last year Georgia Tech had 276 yards. Pitt had -5. Obviously, that can't happen if the Panthers are going to win on Saturday.
The team is preparing for it, but there's nothing like actually facing it in a real game. And even if you see it a few times a year, that's not really enough, either, since it's not the norm. Paul Chryst kind of talked about that in the ACC weekly call, saying the players running it in practice against the defense obviously aren't going to be as good as Georgia Tech's offense.
FTRS: James Conner has obviously had a huge season so far. Explain to me why he's been so successful this year.
CH: Conner's biggest strength, to me, is that he is the perfect combination of size and quickness. He's a load to tackle, hits holes hard, and is pretty quick for a bigger back. Since Pitt has been facing better teams, he's definitely been slowed down a bit. He hasn't cracked 100 yards for three straight games now, but is still an effective rusher. The Panthers did some different things on offense last week in an effort to not be as predictable, and that helped. Conner still only had a modest 85 yards, but averaged more than five per carry since he had only 16 attempts.
The key for him is to try to get some help from the coaches. Too often, Pitt has tried to cram him up the middle or to either side of the line into a pile of defenders. Any back is going to find room difficult under those circumstances and there's no doubt that after the first few games, teams became more aware of what he can do and tried harder to stop him. Pitt needs to keep defenses guessing to open up some room for him.
FTRS: Other than Conner, give me three players on the Pitt roster that Tech fans should be looking out for on Saturday.
CH: The first is obviously wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd hasn't had the monster season some thought he might since the passing game has been a little sluggish with redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik. But Boyd is still a tremendous playmaker and probably has the most big play ability of anyone on the team. He's not catching as many passes as he did last year, but still can score a touchdown any time he touches the ball.
Another is Voytik. One of the wrinkles Pitt added last week was a read option with Voytik, who is an excellent running quarterback. It really gave Virginia Tech trouble and even though Paul Chryst has appeared up in the air about using it again, I'd be shocked if they didn't since it worked so well - Voytik led the team in rushing with more than 100 yards.
On defense, collectively, I'll say the linebackers. The guys on the outside are seniors Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez, and both have played well. Pitt is also apparently going to try something new at middle linebacker with starter Matt Galambos being replaced by Nic Grigsby and Bam Bradley. Both are very athletic and, in my opinion, better overall players than Galmbos. Grigsby has been the team's 'freeze' linebacker - a hybrid LB/DE while Bradley plays on the outside.
My guess is that Chryst just wants to get some more athleticism in there against the triple option, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward. And against the option, those are the guys to watch.
FTRS: The Pitt defense seems to be the strong point of this team. What is the system ran, and what are some of the main things the defense has done well to shut down opposing offenses?
CH: Pitt runs a traditional 4-3 and, overall, has done a decent job of bending without breaking. The unit has given up its share of big plays (mostly through the air), but still not allowing teams to score a ton of points. They've yet to give up more than 25 points this year and a great example of the bend/don't break thing was against Virginia Tech last week. Tech moved the ball some, but Pitt held them to three field goals, giving up only one touchdown.
The team won't completely shut down the triple option. But they can win if they keep Georgia Tech to field goals and out of the end zone. They don't have the playmakers on defense, as they have in past years with guys like Aaron Donald last season. But overall as a unit, just play fairly well together.
Pitt hasn't faced big time offenses this season, so I think the numbers are a little deceptive. Realistically, they've been decent, but not likely the #14 defense as they're currently ranked in points allowed. Even though it's a quirky offense of sorts that they're facing, this game will tell us a lot about how good they truly are since the Yellow Jackets can put points on the board.
FTRS: Finally, what is your prediction for this matchup?
CH: To me, this is about as difficult to predict a game as it gets. I think Georgia Tech is a solid team and what scares me the most is that they are pretty desperate for a win with two consecutive losses. The effort should be there since a loss probably knocks them out of the Division race.
I was a little surprised to see the line open up at Pitt -4. The game looks a lot closer to a pick 'em to me.
For the last couple of weeks, I've made my picks somewhat based on home field advantage. I picked Virginia to beat Pitt and Pitt to beat Virginia Tech partially because of it since I expected those games to be close, and I'm doing the same here. The game looks like a close one to me and Georgia Tech has been pretty decent on the road this year. But getting the game at Heinz Field on Homecoming, no less, should help.
While Pitt could struggle against the option, the big strength I see for them is that their running game should thrive against Georgia Tech's run defense. They've had issues there and the ground attack is Pitt's bread and butter. In the end, that could be the undoing for the Yellow Jackets.
I'll take Pitt here, 27-23.