9 takeaways from Tech-Pittsburgh

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Sorry for the delay. I’m going to throw my travel and some computer issues under the bus. And I guess these aren’t all “takeaways,” per se.

1. I mentioned this in the story I wrote for Monday’s paper and myajc – Tech’s offensive showing was done against a defense that was ranked No. 4 in the country in total defense and also without the starting B-back (Laskey), its best blocking A-back for most of the game (Charles Perkins) and without starting right tackle Chris Griffin.

The Jackets still managed to pound out 612 yards and 8.1 yards per play, Pittsburgh’s highest average of the year, and hit eight plays of 20 yards or more. The 612-yard output is the sixth highest in Tech’s modern era and one yard better than its production against North Carolina. They’re the third- and fourth-best totals against FBS opponents.

You could make the case that Tech’s offense is playing the best it has under coach Paul Johnson. The Jackets have eight games of 8.0 yards per play or more against ACC opponents, and two have been in the past two games.

A-back Broderick Snoddy scored three touchdowns Saturday. He became the 50th Tech player to accomplish that feat. Seven players have scored four touchdowns in a game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A-back Broderick Snoddy scored three touchdowns Saturday. He became the 50th Tech player to accomplish that feat. Seven players have scored four touchdowns in a game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

2. The emergence of A-back Broderick Snoddy is intriguing for the offense. He had five carries for 39 yards against North Carolina, and followed it up with six carries for 82 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh. Snoddy, you may know, has some jets – he is the school record holder in the 60-meter dash and was the winner of this celebrated matchup against quarterback Justin Thomas.

Prior to the North Carolina game, at least, Tech had been struggling to pop plays longer than 40 yards, and while Snoddy’s longest run Saturday was 34 yards (a touchdown), he does give the offense a significant home-run threat.

“He broke some tackles and he’s got great speed,” Johnson said. “When he uses it and gets outside, he’s a different kind of guy. The other guys are cutback guys, and he can run around the corner.”

Particularly as long as Synjyn Days is at B-back in place of Zach Laskey – Johnson said Saturday that Laskey “won’t be back for a couple weeks” with his shoulder injury– I’d expect to see more of Snoddy.

3. His fumble aside, it was a commendable first career start at B-back for Days. He finished with 110 yards on 22 carries and no negative-yardage attempts. He was the engine behind Tech’s march of 8:54 that just about squeezed the hope out of Pittsburgh in the third and fourth quarter, although that was the possession he ended with a lost fumble.

“For the most part, I thought he did OK,” Johnson said. “He missed a couple blocks inside. One time on a counter option, he missed a guy, and a couple reads, but I thought he ran the ball hard. He did some good things.”

Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy was in the right place to recover a running back Isaac Bennett Saturday. With two against the Panthers, he has five for his career.

Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy was in the right place to recover a fumble by Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik on the second play of the game. With two against the Panthers, he has five for his career. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

4. It’s hard to know what to make out of Pittsburgh’s five first-quarter fumbles. As Johnson put it, the start of the game was “kind of screwy.” The first five minutes of the game were almost impossible to believe. Pittsburgh ran six plays and Tech forced legitimate fumbles on four of them. It wasn’t bad conditions or unforced errors. The Jackets knocked the ball loose on each, and gained possession on all four.

Plenty of credit goes to Tech for its “ball disruption,” as defensive coordinator Ted Roof calls it. The Jackets needed to make something happen defensively and did it with five gained fumbles in a quarter, tying an FBS record.

Tech had forced five fumbles in the first 457 plays of the season, a rate of a little better than one per 100 plays. What happened obviously wasn’t mere chance, but I feel safe saying it would be next to impossible to repeat.

After that, in the final three quarters, Pitt fumbled two more times over its final 50 plays, one unforced.

The fumble spree ended up being extremely important in the game’s outcome, as the Panthers scored touchdowns on four of their final eight possessions, a robust 3.5 points per possession average. Pittsburgh averaged 6.4 yards per rush, including the 74-yard run by James Conner that ended in a fumble and a 50-yard run by Rachid Ibrahim. Quarterback Chad Voytik completed 15 of 20 passes for 193 yards, 9.7 yards per attempt.

The challenges on third down continued, with Pitt converting eight of 12. The average third-down distance was 6.4 yards. The Panthers were 2-for-5 on third-and-7 or longer.

As I said, Roof and the defense get credit for being so aggressive in going after the ball, which requires effort and technique.

“One thing we practice all week is getting to the ball and getting numbers to the ball,” defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “That was a big thing, I think, with those fumbles, was just getting numbers on the guy carrying the ball.”

But the primary responsibility of stopping the run and getting off the field has remained elusive.

While the offense has played at near peak efficiency, the defense is not doing much very well. Going back to the 2009 season, Tech has had eight games in which it gave up an average of 8.0 yards per play or more. Two were last year and three have been this season.

5. The play of the game, to me, was D.J. White’s strip of Conner just outside the goal line. It was a pure hustle play. Conner passed White at around the Pittsburgh 27-yard line, at which point Conner was about to break into a full sprint and White was trying to disengage from an H-back’s block. White ran down Conner and stripped the ball away inside the five-yard line. White actually said that “I felt pretty good about my chance of getting him” when he saw Conner pass him. “It was just a matter of getting the ball out.”

After the touchdown-preventing fumble and the resulting touchback, Tech pushed the lead three plays later to 14-0 on Charles Perkins’ 79-yard touchdown reception. Without White’s play, the game would have been tied at 7 and Pittsburgh would have regained momentum. Would Tech have won regardless? Probably so, but the outcome would have been in doubt for much longer than it was.

(Johnson said after the game that he thought Perkins had a sprain. We’ll find out more this afternoon, hopefully.)

6. It appeared that Tech blitzed more with two extra defenders than it had previously. The results, as might be expected, reflected the risk-reward balance. In one sequence in the second quarter, Tech blitzed on third-and-3, and Voytik was nearly taken down by linebacker P.J. Davis, but hit Ibrahim for nine yards and a first down. On the next play, the Jackets again brought two extra defenders, freeing up Adam Gotsis for an eight-yard sack. Ibrahim ran for 15 yards on 2nd-and-18. On 3rd-and-3, Tech again brought six and Voytik threw incomplete, forcing a punt. I think the pass may have been tipped.

Johnson said the defense didn’t blitz any more than normal.

7. There are a few ways for Tech’s slim shot to make the ACC championship game to come to pass. The simplest is that Tech runs the table to finish at 6-2, Duke loses two more to finish 5-3 and North Carolina takes one more loss to also finish at 5-3. (Duke and North Carolina meet Nov. 20, so at least one of those two teams will take another loss.)

However, as has been noted widely, Duke controls its fate and has a fairly manageable path home. The Blue Devils are at Pittsburgh, at Syracuse, home against Virginia Tech, home against North Carolina and home against Wake Forest. If the Blue Devils win out, they will win the division outright.

There’s a possibility that Tech could make it with Duke and the Jackets both finishing at 6-2, but it would require at least one more team to finish 6-2 and make it a three-way tie or more. Also, Duke’s second loss would have to be to a Coastal team, as the second tiebreaker is division record. Tech’s would be 4-2 and Duke has only one division loss at this point.

A Tech-Duke-UNC tie would knock out the Jackets, as the first tiebreaker is head to head, and Tech would be eliminated, having lost to both.

A three-way tie with Duke and Pittsburgh at 6-2 (which would begin with the Panthers beating Duke on Saturday and give the Blue Devils a second division loss) could work. Each team would be 4-2 in the Coastal and then the next tiebreaker would be record against the highest-finishing division team outside of the teams in the tie. At that point, Tech’s hope would be for either Miami or Virginia Tech to be that team.

If the fourth-place team were Miami, that would work in Tech’s favor. Duke lost to Miami, while Tech beat Miami. In this scenario, Pitt would also have to have beaten Miami. That would eliminate Duke. Then, Tech and Pitt would revert to the first tiebreaker between two teams, head to head, giving Tech the berth in the championship. However, for Miami to be 5-3 (and be the next highest finishing team) and Pitt to be 6-2, that would require Miami to beat Florida State and lose to Pitt.

It would also work in Tech’s favor if the Hokies run the table, including a win over Duke Nov. 15 in Durham, N.C., to finish 5-3. Then, like the first scenario, Tech, Duke and Pitt would be 1-1 in head-to-head, their division records would be identical and then the third tiebreaker would be record against next highest finishing team. In this scenario, Virginia Tech would have beaten Duke, while Pitt and Tech already have beaten the Hokies, which would eliminate Duke and then Pittsburgh.

It can’t be a three-way tie with Duke and Miami at 6-2 (which, among other things, would require the Hurricanes to beat Florida State). With each team 1-1 in the head-to-head tiebreaker, Miami would win on the second tiebreaker, best division record, at 5-1.

It couldn’t be a three-way tie with Duke and Virginia at 6-2, simply because to get to 6-2, Tech would have to give Virginia a third loss.

One caveat – I remember going through this in 2012 and trying to understand the third tiebreaker. In the Tech/Duke/Pitt scenario with the record against Miami being the tiebreaker, I think Miami might have to be the lone team at 5-3 for this to work (which would require the Hurricanes to beat Florida State and lose to Pitt).

There was some uncertainty about what would happen if in that“next best team” tiebreaker. Namely, what would happen if there was more than one team with that record? Would you separate those teams by tiebreaker first, or would you include both of them? I don’t remember if I got a clear answer on that.

Basically, Tech’s best chance is to run the table and for Duke and North Carolina to finish at 5-3 or worse. Otherwise, if Duke finishes at 6-2, the one loss has to be a Coastal team, ideally Pittsburgh en route to the Panthers running the table. Then Tech has to hope Miami or Virginia Tech finish at 5-3.

Of course, Tech’s part of the formula is difficult enough. Virginia, N.C. State and Clemson are all winnable games, but the Clemson game, in particular, will be a test.

I’m not sure it’s possible for four teams to finish in a tie at 6-2. There are probably also ways for Tech to get in at 5-3, but that’ll have to wait for another blog.

8. If you’re wondering, and you’re probably not, had Tech beaten Duke, North Carolina and then Pittsburgh, my guess is the Jackets would be somewhere around No. 18 in the polls. That’s where Utah is, which was two spots behind Tech at No. 24 when the Jackets lost. The Utes had an off week and have won their past two.

Tech did receive 13 points in the coaches poll, however, after beating Pittsburgh, after receiving no votes after the North Carolina loss. It was the fifth most votes among the “also receiving votes” teams. Lest you think Johnson is the only one voting for Tech, I’d highly doubt it. Were he the only coach to put Tech on his ballot, Johnson would have had to vote his team 13th in the country, and something tells me he didn’t.

Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is not a voter. In the ACC, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Johnson are all members of the 62-coach panel.

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