BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech’s defensive players blitzed from the left, and they rushed from the right. They charged up the middle, and if they could have, they would have come at Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage all night. The Hokies even whiffed several times, try as they might.
But when the carnage was over and No. 24 Virginia Tech closed out Saturday’s 19-9 pounding of the Panthers at Lane Stadium, the consensus was it could have been more lopsided.
With their relentless defensive front playing at the top of its game, the Hokies finished with a season-high eight sacks Saturday, including a career-high three from defensive end Dadi Nicolas, and limited the Panthers to just 210 yards. It’s the most sacks Virginia Tech has had since a 2006 win over Duke, and the Hokies were credited with seven additional hits on Savage.
The victory leaves the Hokies entering their bye week in prime position to compete with Miami for the ACC’s Coastal Division title. The two teams do not meet until Nov. 9 in South Florida.
“I bet we missed eight” sacks, Coach Frank Beamer said, a sentiment that was echoed by defensive coordinator Bud Foster and several defensive players. “We get that much pressure on guys in Lane Stadium, they usually go down, and I don’t know how many times we stood over there and went, ‘What the heck?’ ”
That, though, only told part of the story. Pittsburgh (3-2, 2-2 ACC) had six drives that didn’t net a first down, punted the ball eight times and mustered minus-six yards in the entire third quarter. Aside from a 48-yard completion to wide receiver Devin Street at the end of the first half and a 75-yard scoring drive late in the game, the Panthers averaged just 1.85 yards per play.
Following Savage’s nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, though, Hokies defensive end J.R. Collins got to the Pittsburgh quarterback and stripped the ball on the ensuing two-point conversion. The tackle for a loss didn’t count in the box score, but it was a fitting conclusion.
Savage, just two weeks removed from suffering a concussion after Virginia sacked him seven times, completed only 13 of his 28 passes for 187 yards. The Panthers gained just 23 rushing yards.
“It would be pretty arrogant to think that everything was our fault,” Pittsburgh Coach Paul Chryst said before praising the Hokies.
With its defense in attack mode all afternoon, Virginia Tech only needed a quick start to the game on offense to erase the bad memories from last year, when the Panthers jumped out to a 21-0 lead and beat the Hokies, 35-17.
Quarterback Logan Thomas finished 19 of 34 for 239 yards and threw his lone touchdown pass on Virginia Tech’s opening possession, firing a 27-yard back-shoulder strike to freshman tight end Kalvin Cline (career-high four catches for 65 yards). More importantly, a year after throwing three interceptions at Pittsburgh, Thomas and the Hokies were turnover-free for the third straight game.
If not for four drives that stalled inside the Pittsburgh 25-yard line, Virginia Tech could have been even more in control. Instead, the Hokies settled for three second-half field goals by place kicker Cody Journell, who also hooked a 33-yard attempt in the third quarter and connected on a career-long 48-yard attempt in the first quarter. The team’s tailbacks accounted for only 50 rushing yards.
“I think we left some yards out there. We left some completions out there,” Beamer said. “When we look at it, there’s gonna be a lot of plays that you could look at and say . . . ‘we should’ve got this ball in the end zone.’ ”
Nonetheless, Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0 ACC) has attained bowl eligibility in a 21st consecutive season, and this time the Hokies got it out of the way early (last year, they needed a game-winning field goal in their final regular season game to clinch a postseason berth). They have one of the nation’s best defenses to thank for that.
On Saturday, Foster’s latest wrinkle was to use Nicolas as an outside linebacker in pass-rushing situations after seeing how well Virginia used linebacker Max Valles on the edge against Pittsburgh’s tight ends two weeks earlier.
With linebackers Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards yelling “Dadi right” and “Dadi left” before the snap to instruct him where to go, Nicolas finished with a career-high seven tackles, one of which knocked Panthers tailback James Conner out of the game in the first half.
He was also one of six Virginia Tech players who picked up at least a half-sack against Savage on an afternoon his aching body won’t soon forget.
“We just played hard and played aggressive. We took what we was given,” defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins (career-high two sacks) said. “They wanted to pass the ball, so we pass rushed. Y’all see the results.”