|Pitt, Virginia Tech hoping to play despite COVID-19 concerns|
You could say there are three opponents in play for Saturday's ACC game between the Pitt Panthers and Virginia Tech Hokies at Heinz Field. The interloper is COVID-19, which could force a postponement.
As of Tuesday, Pitt's football activities were shut down because of the virus, which forced the postponement last week of the Panthers' game against Georgia Tech. An unknown number of Pitt players tested positive last week, and test results this week will determine the status of the Virginia Tech game.
"It's a silent little killer," Pitt linebacker Chase Pine said. "It got us, but we're going to come back stronger."
Pitt (4-4, 3-4 ACC) broke a four-game losing streak two weeks ago with a 41-17 win over Florida State, but any momentum might have been lost with the forced open weekend.
At the least, Pitt will have limited practice this week.
"We can practice once (and be prepared), to be honest with you," Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi said. "But you like to get two in.
"We expect to play the Virginia Tech game. We hope we're not let down again. It will be up to our team and players on how safe they are out there."
The Hokies (4-4, 4-3) have lost three of their past four games but nearly pulled off an upset last week in a 25-24 setback against then-No. 9 Miami, a game they led for 54 minutes before the Hurricanes pulled it out.
They are preparing and practicing as per usual.
"We deal with uncertainty every day," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said.
"I think our guys have done a great job handling (the pandemic). We can't approach this week with any different mindset."
If Pitt gets clearance to play, the matchup to watch will be the Panthers' defense against Virginia Tech's offense.
The Panthers rank first in the ACC on defense, allowing 296.5 yards a game. They lead the country with an average of 11.6 tackles for loss, with linebacker SirVocea Dennis tied for second nationally with 13.5. They also lead the ACC and rank second in the nation with 4.75 sacks a game, led by defensive end Patrick Jones II's eight.
In particular, Pitt is stingy against the run. Opponents are gaining just 78.8 yards a game and a national-best 2.2 yards a carry on the ground.
Something, then, will have to give, as the Hokies lead the conference with 262.8 rushing yards a game. Khalil Herbert averages 8.2 yards a carry and quarterback Hendon Hooker 5.6.
However, Virginia Tech had a season-worst 160 yards rushing against Miami, as Hooker was sacked six times (with 46 yards in losses) also a season-most for the team.
"We'll have a similar challenge (against Pitt)," Fuente said. "These guys are just as big and just as athletic on the defensive line, but they put more people in the box than Miami. We're going to go against a big, athletic defensive line that pressures the passer.
"I know that there's nobody in America that devotes as many hats in the box to the run game as Pat (Narduzzi) does. It makes it very, very difficult to run the ball at all."
And that's if the game is played at all.
--Field Level Media