After announcing early Friday afternoon that players would be required to wear face coverings Saturday during play when Pittsburgh hosts Virginia Tech, Pitt clarified later that the Panthers will be outfitted with coverings, but neither team will have to wear them in competition.
With the face-covering hubbub quelled, the focus for the meeting of .500 teams once again falls on a matchup of one of the nation’s top rushing teams against one of the country’s best run-stopping units in Heinz Field, which will be limited to a capacity of 5,500 fans.
Pitt (4-4, 3-4 ACC) initially revealed Friday all participating coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders) and spectators who couldn’t maintain social distancing would be required to wear face coverings Saturday, including during play on the field, in accordance with Pennsylvania state guidelines that were announced this week. A Virginia Tech spokesperson said Tech’s coaches and players would adhere to the guidelines.
A version of the guidelines far more manageable for both teams was released a few hours later by Pitt:
“To provide further clarity, Pitt football student-athletes will be outfitted with face coverings throughout the game. However, they will not be required to have the coverings pulled up while in the midst of play to prevent the impairment of breathing. Such usage of face coverings during competition would be in compliance with Section 3 of the Secretary of Health’s Face Covering Order.”
Before the late-afternoon clarification, the Tech spokesperson said most of the Hokies’ players have been wearing face shields this season designed by Tech’s engineering program. A Pitt athletic department spokesperson said Pitt’s players plan to wear gaiters Saturday, and added that players have been wearing them in practices all season.
Tech (4-4, 4-3) is looking to recover after back-to-back losses at home against Liberty and Miami by a combined four points.
Pitt will be back on the field for the first time since Nov. 7. The Panthers had to postpone a game last Saturday at Georgia Tech when both Pitt and the Yellow Jackets had players who had to quarantine because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing. That game is now scheduled to be played Dec. 10.
Practices resumed Tuesday at Pitt after they’d been suspended since last Thursday. Coach Pat Narduzzi has said Pitt must get through Friday’s round of coronavirus testing with manageable results before Saturday’s game can be played.
While Pitt struggled in the middle portion of its slate, losing four consecutive games, it has maintained a rush defense surrendering a national-best 2.2 yards per carry and just 78.8 yards per game, which is second-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision. No player has gained more than 80 rushing yards against Pitt.
Defensive end Patrick Jones, a graduate of Grassfield High in Chesapeake, has complemented Pitt’s run-stopping with a pass rush that has produced an ACC-best eight sacks (second most in the nation). He’ll be of particular interest to Tech’s offensive line after Hokies quarterback Hendon Hooker was sacked a season-high six times last weekend in a 25-24 loss to Miami.
Tech should counter with running back Khalil Herbert, who is expected to play after returning last week from a hamstring injury that kept him out for all but one kickoff return two weekends ago against Liberty, Hooker and running back Jalen Holston (four carries for 36 yards and two touchdowns against Miami) on the ground.
Though Tech ran for a season-low 160 rushing yards against Miami, Herbert is still third in the ACC with an average of 107 rushing yards per game, and the Hokies are eighth in the nation in rushing offense (262.8 yards per game).
“This is a similar challenge (to Miami) in terms of, offensively, we’re gonna go against a big athletic defensive line that pressures the passer,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said regarding Pitt. “They do a great job with the run game. I know there’s nobody in America that devotes as many hats in the box to the run game as Pat does.”
VIRGINIA TECH (4-4, 4-3 ACC) AT PITTSBURGH (4-4, 3-4)
WHEN: 4 p.m.
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh.
TV/RADIO: ACC Network/790 AM.
THE FAVORITE: Tech by 3.
THE BUZZ: Heinz Field has been an unfriendly place for Tech in the last 19 years, with the Hokies losing in five of their last six trips. In 2018, Tech lost 52-22 at Pitt, which ran for 492 yards. Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield said Pitt “wanted blood” two years ago after losing 20-14 in 2017 in Blacksburg in a game that featured a late goal-line stand by the Hokies. Hollifield added “we were a bunch of little kids going” to Pitt in ’18. Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (62% completions for 1,599 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions this season) has started each of the last three games against Tech, including the Hokies’ 28-0 win last season in Lane Stadium. Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker is a threat to run (574 rushing yards), but his ability to find wide receivers Tré Turner and Tayvion Robinson, a Cox High alum, in space might play a big role in whether the Hokies are able to loosen up the Panthers’ defensive front against the run.
THE PICK: Tech 28-23.
ABILENE CHRISTIAN (1-4) at VIRGINIA (3-4)
WHEN: 4 p.m.
WHERE: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville.
TV/RADIO: MASN/850 AM, 96.5 FM.
THE FAVORITE: U.Va. by 39.5.
THE BUZZ: Just a breather for U.Va., which will be looking to get back to .500 after starting 1-4, before it finishes its ACC stretch of games at Florida State, against Boston College and at Virginia Tech. Abilene Christian, which was a last-minute schedule addition for U.Va. in September, has played two FBS opponents this season, losing 17-13 at Texas-El Paso and 55-23 at Army. Expect U.Va. to get quarterback Brennan Armstrong a rest for much of the second half. Running back Ronnie Walker, who made his U.Va. debut last weekend with five carries for 20 yards in the Cavaliers’ 31-17 win against Louisville, could get a lot of work.
THE PICK: U.Va. 52-10.
Norm Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org
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