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What to watch for in the ACC Coastal matchup:
Stay out of third-and-long
Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude made clear that third-and-long is to be avoided, “because it’s a bees’ nest of dudes running around.” Pitt leads FBS in sacks with 38 and is 19th in third-down defense at 30.95 percent. In their most recent game, the Panthers limited Miami to 2-for-13, with the only conversions on third-and-2 or shorter.
Tech, with limitations in pass protection, ranks 110th in third-down efficiency (34.38 percent), though the Jackets did have some success on third-and-long against Miami.
Keys for Tech are, naturally, to chip away on first and second down to set up third-and-short or to avoid third down altogether. Should the Jackets find themselves in third-and-long, a quick-hitting pass likely would have the best chance. Or, if field position is favorable, the Jackets could play to set up going for it on fourth down.
“You have to have a few simple ways to be able to attack it, because if you try to block everything that they bring, you won’t block anything,” Patenaude said. “So you have to have a few things that you can do really, really well, and we’ll have a few things up our sleeves.”
Be better in field position
There are many reasons that Tech could score only seven points on offense in regulation against Miami, and field position is one. The Jackets’ starting points on their 10 regulation drives two Saturdays ago, all inside their own territory: 25, 27, 25, 6, 25, 20, 4, 5, 20 and 25. Miami, meanwhile, had possessions start at the Tech 13- and 32-yard lines, both of which generated touchdowns.
The Jackets were similarly disadvantaged against Duke, North, Carolina and Temple, as a shortage of turnovers and big kickoff or punt returns gave them long fields. For an offense that doesn’t often create big plays and has consistency issues, that’s not ideal.
Against the No. 14 defense in the country, the Jackets could really use short fields or, even better, scores from special teams or the defense.
Be ready for PItt’s passing game
By a hair over Miami, Pitt has the run/pass ratio most leaning to the pass of any of Tech’s first eight opponents, at 47/53. Quarterback Kenny Pickett averages 41.3 pass attempts per game.
“You think of a run-oriented, big, physical offensive line, control the clock, and then you get to Game 8 of the season and you see their body of work, and they’ve got one of the leading receivers in the country, one of the leading passers in the country,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “They are pass-heavy.”
The Panthers aren’t highly effective with the pass — their pass-efficiency rating ranks 101st in FBS — but Pickett does like to look for receiver Maurice Ffrench, whose 64 receptions are second in the country and lead the ACC.
“He’s comfortable in the pocket, he has poise, he keeps his eyes downfield and then he has targets,” Thacker said of Pickett.
As is normally the case, a burden will fall on cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton to be effective in press coverage. If the pass rush can’t sack Pickett, preventing him from leaking out to scramble or extend the play will be the next best thing.
After pulling off a fake punt against Miami, might coach Geoff Collins (dubbed “the wizard” by tight ends coach Chris Wiesehan) have more in store for Pittsburgh? Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi was prepared, saying that the staff had gone back to look at all of the trick plays Collins ran at Temple, praising it as “very creative.”
Wiesehan also said that “we have a few of those things up our sleeve.” Even if Tech doesn’t try anything, it’s already a small win, as Pitt chose to devote time in game planning to prepare for the possibility of a trick play, meaning something else received less time.
The fake punt proved crucial in Tech’s overtime win, and against a Pitt team that has allowed 20 or fewer points in five out of eight games, an extra chance at more points could be significant.
The last time Tech had an open date, the extra rest wasn’t terribly beneficial. After losing to The Citadel, the Jackets had a week off and then lost 24-2 at Temple. Last week, Collins was protective of players who have played significantly, limiting time in full pads and then cutting their practice time short.
“The bye week was very much needed,” Mason said.
The open date is always a balancing act of staying sharp, getting rest, addressing weaknesses and keeping focused on upcoming games. How well Collins managed that break could reveal itself quickly Saturday.