With Senior Day set, here are the things to watch, as Tech faces Pitt

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Today marks the final home game for Virginia Tech’s seniors, as the Hokies take on Pittsburgh at Lane Stadium in the penultimate game of the 2017 regular season.

Virginia Tech enters the game with a 7-3 mark 3-3 in the ACC, having lost its past two games. Pittsburgh comes in at 4-6 and needs to win its final two regular-season games to assure itself of bowl eligibility.

The Hokies will be looking to get back on track after stumbling in losses at Miami and at Georgia Tech. Despite those defeats, Tech finds itself with a lot to play for, starting with sending the seniors out on a winning note.

“I don’t think our mindset has really changed,” Tech quarterback Josh Jackson said. “We want to win out here and hopefully win our bowl game and have a 10-win season again. So I wouldn’t say our mindset has changed. I just think that we are probably a little bit hungrier and want to send the seniors out right.”

The game kicks off at 12:20. As far as the series goes, the Hokies have lost six of the past eight meetings, but won 39-36 in Pittsburgh last year.

All that said, here are some things to watch:

Tech’s defense against the run – Pittsburgh has scored at least 24 points in each of its past three games, and much of that success stems from the rushing of tailback Darrin Hall. The junior tripped the 100-yard mark in each of those games, and he scored four touchdowns in the Panthers’ 34-31 loss to North Carolina on Nov. 9.

Hall leads the Panthers with 594 yards rushing, but more impressively, he has lost just 17 yards on 103 carries this season. The Hokies, in contrast, gave up more than 250 yards rushing against run-happy Georgia Tech last Saturday and fell to No. 33 nationally in rush defense.

For Virginia Tech, any success on defense starts with stopping the run. That will be a tall task considering the ability of the 220-pound Hall and an offensive line that features five starters who each weigh more than 300 pounds.

Pitt is 12-3 in the 15 games in which it has rushed for more than 200 yards under head coach Pat Narduzzi. If the Hokies keep the Panthers under that number, they probably put themselves in great position to win.

Tech’s defense vs. DiNucci – Pittsburgh quarterback Ben DiNucci took over the reins at quarterback several games ago after Max Browne went down with a season-ending injury, and he has pedestrian numbers – he’s only thrown for more than 200 yards once, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

The Hokies have been fairly strong against first-year quarterbacks this season. ODU’s Steven Williams Jr., North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt, and Boston College’s Anthony Brown all struggled against Tech’s defense, and even Georgia Tech’s TaQuon Marshall only rushed for 64 yards.

Also working in the Hokies’ favor, Pittsburgh ranks tied for 96th nationally in sacks allowed (26). So if the Hokies can stop the run, they really can get after the quarterback. This is a part of the game that certainly bears watching.

Tech’s offense – What can Hokie Nation expect from Tech’s offense against Pittsburgh? Not sure, given the Hokies’ struggles of the past two games, which rank as probably the worst in Justin Fuente’s tenure.

But certainly opportunity exists. Pittsburgh gives up 415.2 yards per game and ranks 13th in the ACC in third-down conversion percentage. They also rank 12th in the league in sacks and tied for seventh in interceptions despite being an attacking defense.

The Hokies are due for a big game. Can they ride the emotion of Senior Day, get a score or two on the board early and get some momentum? Time will tell.

Containing Quadree – Pittsburgh’s Quadree Henderson already is one of the best return men in the history of the ACC. The junior has a Pittsburgh-record seven career kick returns for touchdowns, including four on kickoffs and three on punts. He – along with the Hokies’ Greg Stroman – has returned two punts for touchdowns this season. Of note, Henderson has returned six kickoffs more than 80 yards in his career.

Tech has been outstanding on special teams this season, but the Hokies are facing their toughest test. The quickest way to lose a game is on special teams, so Tech needs to keep Henderson bottled up to enhance its chances of winning.

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