October 8, 2016:  Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi watches a replay during a NCAA football game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
Pittsburgh Panthers

Pittsburgh faces trap game at Virginia in Week 7

Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

A tough road lies ahead for the Pittsburgh Panthers football team. After a bye in Week 8, Pittsburgh ends October with a resurgent Virginia Tech program and then begins the next month with another rising former power, the Miami Hurricanes. Oh, then Clemson follows after that.

If Pittsburgh drops a road matchup to Virginia this Saturday, those games to follow won’t mean much.

Even with a bye next, this trip to Charlottesville is a classic trap game, and the Panthers better be aware of that. If they aren’t, they could fall out of division title contention before the end of October.

Pittsburgh has rebounded fairly well from blowing its 14-point lead at North Carolina three weeks ago, but the Panthers are still having trouble closing out teams. Pittsburgh had a seven-point led early in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech, but in a matter of less than seven minutes, the Yellow Jackets scored two touchdowns.

The Georgia Tech option confused Pittsburgh, but in most cases, the Panthers are struggling to hold onto leads because they are terrible in pass defense. The Panthers allow 302.3 passing yards per game, which is the fifth-most in the entire country. In the loss to North Carolina a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh yielded 453 passing yards, including 134 in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers were hoping for improvement in their pass defense this season, and clearly, that hasn’t happened. Pittsburgh starts two seniors and a junior in its secondary, and the fourth player is second-team All-ACC sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, but the statistics indicate their experience hasn’t helped them cover opposing wide receivers this season.

Moving forward, the best way Pittsburgh can stop an opposing passing attack is with its pass rush. The Panthers are tied for the conference lead with 21 sacks, averaging 3.5 sacks per week, and are first in the ACC with 182 yards lost on sacks.

Senior defensive lineman Ejuan Price leads the conference with 8.5 sacks. Pittsburgh needs more pressure from Price and the rest of its defensive line to keep the opposition behind in the down-and-distance category while also putting quarterbacks into situations where they make mistakes. Despite the 21 sacks, Pittsburgh has only 10 takeaways in six games. Creating more turnovers would really help the Panthers’ defense.

Virginia has the fifth-ranked passing attack in the ACC, so Pittsburgh will have its hands full, but the Cavaliers don’t protect their quarterback very well. Virginia has allowed 13 sacks and junior quarterback Kurt Benkert has thrown six interceptions in just five games.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the Cavaliers’ defense is statistically even worse at stopping the pass. Virginia allows 309.6 passing yards per game, third-most in the nation. The Panthers are a predominantly running team, and don’t expect that to change, but quarterback Nate Peterman must take advantage of his opportunities when he has them. Whichever team has the ball last could very well win this game.

While Virginia enters the game 2-3 and Pittsburgh is 4-2, there is still more on the line for the Panthers because they have already suffered a conference defeat. Another loss with the teams they have coming up would be a dagger for the Panthers’ hopes to win the Coastal Division.

The fact the Panthers have a bye next Saturday should keep their concentration on Virginia rather than the next few opponents, but this could still be viewed as a trap game. Pitt must be ready to play because it has to win to stay alive in the Coastal race.

Pittsburgh faces trap game at Virginia in Week 7
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